Kirby Corp. (NYSE:KEX) is the largest chemical tank barge operator in the United States. While many shipping companies tend to be commodity businesses with low margins and volatile earnings, Kirby is different. Margins on its inland and coastal barge businesses are near 25%, a profile you would expect in a consumer staple company rather than a chemical barge operator. Kirby’s margin profile results from two sources: industry structure and dominant positioning. Kirby operates in a Jones Act market. The Jones Act is a protectionist policy implemented by the United States government in the 1920s, which requires that all goods transported between US ports be carried on domestically constructed, US-flagged ships that are owned and crewed by US citizens. This structural barrier-to-entry lowers competition and creates high margins for the entire industry. In its markets, Kirby controls close to 30% of industry barges, well beyond its closest competition. Kirby therefore is able to lead on pricing in the market and on average has been able to raise prices above inflation.
Kirby’s management maintains an unlevered capital structure with significant liquidity, positioning itself to make acquisitions during times of industry distress when it can pick up quality assets at large discounts. However, like all managements, Kirby is not flawless. Indeed, it is the negative impact of the 2011 acquisition of United Engineers, a manufacturer and servicer of fracking equipment that contributed significantly to the decline in Kirby’s shares from a year ago ($125 to $61), which gave us the opportunity to initiate this position. While clearly the earnings and revenue from this acquisition have disappointed, we believe the selloff is overdone. United Engineers only accounts for 10% of Kirby’s operating income, and even with our valuation ascribing no value for this segment, we still see significant upside from today’s stock price. Kirby’s core barge operations are healthy, with spot rates close to current contract rates and it is still operating at 90%-95% utilization. More importantly, the chemical industry has committed to over $100 billion of capital expenditures through 2020 to build new chemical plants, setting up the industry for an increase in demand outpacing the current excess supply. At our purchase cost, we see almost 50% upside to our $90 mid case NAV. Continue Reading »