OMAHA, Neb. -- Union Pacific's fourth-quarter profit fell 10% as the railroad hauled 11% less freight , but the recent U.S.-China trade deal is helping boost the outlook for the year.
The railroad said Thursday that it earned $1.4 billion, or $2.02 per share, in the quarter. That's down from $1.55 billion, or $2.12 per share, a year earlier.
The results fell short of Wall Street expectations. The analysts surveyed by Zacks Investment Research expected earnings of $2.03 per share on average.
The railroad's revenue fell 9% to $5.21 billion in the period, which was ahead of projections for $5.17 billion on Wall Street.
Union Pacific CEO Lance Fritz said the preliminary trade deal the United States signed with China last week should boost agricultural shipments later this year because of the amount of goods China pledged to purchase.
“The phase I trade deal takes China as a headwind and sets it up as a potential tailwind,” Fritz said.
Even if China fulfills only part of its purchase commitments, the deal will likely help boost railroad shipments because tariffs imposed as part of the trade war have weighed heavily on agricultural exports to China.
“Even if it's half or one-third, it's a positive for the railroad because those commitments are a growth off the base of purchasing in 2017," Fritz said. "They're substantial, so even a fraction of them is a good news story.”
The railroad said it expects shipping volumes to improve slightly overall in 2020, and it expects to record at least another $500 million in productivity gains during the year.
Union Pacific cut its expenses 12% to $3.1 billion in response to the slower shipping volumes in the quarter. The railroad has been working to streamline its operations by running trains on a tighter schedule, so it can use fewer locomotives, cars and employees to move the same freight.
Weak coal demand continued to hurt the railroad results as it delivered 20% fewer carloads of energy shipments. Union Pacific said it also hauled 15% fewer containers of imported goods and finished vehicles in the quarter.
Edward Jones analyst Jeff Windau said the results were pretty impressive in a tough environment even though the railroad's quarterly profit fell short of estimates.
The Omaha, Nebraska-based company operates 32,400 miles of track in 23 Western states.
For all of 2019, Union Pacific said it earned $5.92 billion, or $8.38 per share. That's down from $5.97 billion, or $7.91 per share, a year earlier. For the full year, analysts surveyed by FactSet expected Union Pacific to report earnings of $8.45 per share.
Union Pacific shares have increased slightly since the beginning of the year, while the Standard & Poor's 500 index has increased nearly 3%. The stock has risen 17% in the last 12 months.
Its shares gained 2.3% to trade for $185.10 in midday trading.
This story has been corrected to show that quarterly revenue beat, not missed, Wall Street projections.
Elements of this story were generated by Automated Insights (http://automatedinsights.com/ap) using data from Zacks Investment Research. Access a Zacks stock report on UNP at https://www.zacks.com/ap/UNP