Banks own thousands of commodity-carrying railcars in 'suffering' industry: Report

While the railcars proved valuable for a time after the crisis, it appears now the industry is stalling

A number of U.S. banks have accumulated hundreds of thousands of railcars that transport grain, coal and other commodities over time, despite a "suffering" industry, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

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Banks like Wells Fargo, Citigroup, PNC and CIT Group held onto their railcar units after the 2008 financial crisis while getting out of other fickle businesses to save money, according to the Journal.

TickerSecurityLastChangeChange %
WFCWELLS FARGO & COMPANY47.10-0.47-0.99%
CCITIGROUP INC.76.71-1.71-2.18%
PNCPNC FINL SVC148.53-1.85-1.23%
CITCIT GROUP INC.44.99-1.02-2.22%

While the railcars proved valuable for a time after the crisis, it appears now the industry isn't going anywhere, and neither are the 400,000 railcars currently in storage, the Journal reported, citing the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

"The industry is suffering. There’s no two ways about it," David Nahass, president of railroad advisory firm Railroad Financial Corp., told the Journal. "Lease rates are down, and there’s not a source of hope about when it will start to improve."

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Wells Fargo inherited its railcar unit after buying Wachovia in 2008. In 2015, it purchased 77,000 more railcars through a deal with General Electric, and now the bank is the largest railcar lessor in the U.S. with 175,000 total cars, according to the Journal.

Railcar lease rates, however, dropped between 10 percent and 15 percent in 2019 from last year, CIT Group told the Journal, though nonbank lessor GATX Corp. said the rates could have dropped to as much as 20 percent.

In this Jan. 9, 2014, file photo, rail cars are filled with coal and sprayed with a topper agent to suppress dust at Cloud Peak Energy's Antelope Mine north of Douglas, Wyo. (Ryan Dorgan/The Casper Star-Tribune via AP, File)

Coal shipments have also declined since 2011, and federal regulations require older railcars to be retrofitted, the Journal reported.

"It’s the worst market I’ve seen in my 30-plus years in the industry," railcar appraiser and former banker Patrick Mazzanti told the Journal.

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But banks' railcar units represent only a small portion of their huge balance sheets and likely will not have a serious impact on the banks even if the industry is hit by disaster, according to the Journal.

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