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Norfolk Southern posts 13% drop in Q3'19 coal revenue amid low export pricing

Norfolk Southern Corp. saw a 13% year-over-year decline in its third-quarter coal revenue due to competition from natural gas as well as low international pricing.

Coal revenue declined from $464 million in the third quarter of 2018 to $403 million during the recent period, according to a company release. Coal volume dropped by about 15% year over year while improved pricing drove a revenue per unit increase of 2%, the railroad's investor presentation stated.

Alan Shaw, the railroad's executive vice president and chief marketing officer, said on an Oct. 23 earnings call that lower commodity pricing will impact many of the company's markets, such as coal and steel. The same macroeconomic conditions, tariff uncertainty and weakened global market are expected to continue to hurt investment, manufacturing and exports in the fourth quarter as it did in the third, Shaw said.

Current export thermal and metallurgical coal pricing makes it difficult for U.S. producers to compete. Thermal coal contracts are effectively hedged through the end of the year, Shaw said, and he expects to see some pressure in that market heading into 2020. The coking coal market is expected to depend on the global economy and international pricing.

"Coal will be pressured in the fourth quarter with the reduction in the seaborne coking coal price," Shaw said. "So you should see a sequential decline in export coal pricing as we move into the fourth quarter."

A year ago, Norfolk Southern saw a sequential improvement in export coal pricing, so the comparison year over year will be a headwind in 2019, he said.

But coal overall accounts for about 12% of Norfolk Southern's volume, with export coal accounting for about 25% of total coal volume, Shaw said. So while export coal is important to the company, it only makes up slightly less than 3% of its total volume.

The railroad's income fell to $657 million, or $2.49 per diluted share, from $702 million in the third quarter of 2018, or $2.52 per diluted share.