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Riding the Rail Winners: Greenbrier

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The rail sector was up on Friday on the tailwinds of the broad market rally -- and rail suppliers, in particular, saw big gains.

Rail sector stocks are highly sensitive to the big economic picture -- manufacturing, construction spending, housing, jobs -- and as the latest U.S. jobs report delivered encouraging signs of a recovery, the logic dictates that rails will ultimately reap the rewards of these macro triggers. "It's often a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats story with rails. The big economic data is the real driver in this sector," said rail analyst D.A. Davidson rail analyst J.B.Groh.

How much and how soon the rewards may be reaped, however, is an open question, especially when it concerns the companies operating in rail supply, such as rail freight car equipment builders. Though notably, the freight-car equipment players were up the most on Friday.

Greenbrier Companies (GBX - Get Report) was up close to 8%, for a gain of 84 cents on the day, to $11.84. FreightCarAmerica (RAIL - Get Report) was up close to 3.5%, or 64 cents to a level of $18.74. Wabtec (WAB - Get Report) was up 2.6% or a little over $1 to a share price of $39.73. These were just the biggest gains among the freight-car equipment companies, but the entire sub-sector in rails was trading higher on Friday--though admittedly a very small sector.

The sensitivity that stocks in this sector display to the broader market was in evidence by mid-day. The Dow dipped into negative territory, the S&P and Nasdaq were only marginally positive, and the huge gains made by Greenbrier and the other freight companies turned more modest, but by the end of Friday the stocks were back up to their highest level of gains. American Railcar Industries (ARII) had dipped into negative territory by mid-day, losing more than 1%, but ended the day up marginally.

What's most noteworthy is that the supply/demand situation is still very unfavorable for these freight car companies, analysts said. "The fundamentals of these companies won't get better for a long time yet," said Morgan Keegan analyst Art Hatfield. "Fundamentals among the freight equipment players may start to get better in summer 2010, so we are talking about a couple of years in terms of real recovery. People need to be cautious about the excess capacity here."

While the major rail operators like Burlington Northern (BNI) and Union Pacific (UNP) have a short-term positive outlook with sequential increases in rail volume, there are still rail cars in storage, as the overall volumes levels are still down year on year. "The railroads will get better long before they need new equipment," Hatfield said.

Does that mean today's run-up in freight-car equipment companies is unjustified? It could be, according to the analysts, or possibly the sector has neared a bottom. "The operators are not going out to order new cars, not in the next six months at least, so when see these companies rally, maybe investors are thinking it can't get any worse than it is now," speculated D.A. Davidson's Groh.
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