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All aboard! Railroad stocks soar on takeover talk

October 13, 2014: 1:16 PM ET
Investors are trying to figure out what a possible CP-CSX deal would mean for the rest of the railroad industry.

Investors are trying to figure out what a possible CP-CSX deal would mean for the rest of the railroad industry.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, Abbott Laboratories and AbbVie, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks.

Shares of big U.S. railroad CSX (CSX) surged as much as 10% Monday after the Wall Street Journal reported that Canadian Pacific (CP) offered to buy it.

According to the report, CSX turned down the takeover overture. But that didn't matter to Wall Street (and Bay Street up north.) Shares of CP were higher Monday as well.

In fact, the mere thought of a big railroad merger led investors to speculate about who else could get a buyout bid.

Shares of Norfolk Southern (NSC) and Kansas City Southern (KSU) were both up more than 3%. It looks like the market's theme song for today is "Train Kept A Rollin'." (No offense to Aerosmith fans ... or those who would prefer a video for "C'Mon Ride It (The Train)" by the Quad City DJ's -- but I have to go with the version by The Yardbirds.)

Meanwhile, shares of CP rival Canadian National Railway (CNI) were down a bit, as were shares of Union Pacific (UNP).

It seems that investors are betting that if CSX does wind up getting bought, Norfolk Southern or Kansas City Southern could be next -- and that Union Pacific or Canadian National could be potential buyers.

Another beneficiary of this train ride? Warren Buffett. Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) (BRKB) is the parent company of big U.S. railroad Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Berkshire shares were also trading higher on Monday.

Related: Buffett's Berkshire stock tops $200,000 a share

Buffett famously called the BSNF deal an "all-in wager" on the U.S. economy. Will the Oracle of Omaha push his significant stack of chips to the table again?

Probably not. Wall Street may be getting ahead of itself. The odds of a deal (or deals) happening anytime soon seem remote, according to Cowen & Company analyst Jason Seidl.

Seidl wrote in a report Monday that shippers are "disenchanted" with the railroad industry due to problems with service and capacity. Seidl cited a survey of shippers by Cowen that showed 70% of them are opposed to a major railroad merger.

Regulators probably won't be too thrilled either. Seidl notes that the number of major railroads has already shrunk from 40 to 7 since 1980.

Investors might be hoping that CP will continue to put pressure on CSX, however. And that argument does make some sense. CP's second-largest shareholder is Pershing Square Capital Management, the activist hedge fund run by Bill Ackman. But Ackman would likely have to make an investment in CSX for his voice to truly matter.

Consolidation in the railroad industry may very well happen one day. Kansas City Southern in particular has long been considered a logical takeover target because of its Mexican railroad business.

There still is no true transcontinental railroad. And with shale gas and oil increasingly becoming a more lucrative product for the railroads to transport as coal shipments decline, the chance to own a railroad that spans from East to West and from Canada to Mexico is obviously appealing.

In fact, the railroad industry's ties to the U.S. energy industry is one big reason why railroad stocks -- and the Dow Jones Transportation Average (DJT) -- have outperformed the market this year.

But investors piling into the stocks on Monday hoping for some big mergers may be making the wrong bet.

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