Shipping stocks have been under pressure lately, but there is one long-term investment opportunity amid the damage. Kirby (KEX - Get Report) is a solid value play, equipped to drive steady long-term growth.

Before we get to discussing Kirby in detail, let's look at what's been happening to shipping stocks. So far this year, The Guggenheim Shipping ETF, which tracks the sector, is down 11%. Shipping company Matson is down 7.3% so far in 2016, while Seaspan has fallen 15%.

Hanjin Shipping collapsed late last month, leaving billions of dollars of cargo stranded in the company's ships. Although Hanjin's problems could create more business for other shipping companies, in the near term it's likely to cause chaos in port operation and shipping lines, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has said, according to a Reuters report.

Despite this industry uncertainty, Kirby has stood its ground. Shares are up 12% this year, and the stock recently received upgrades from analysts.

Zacks raised the stock to hold from strong sell recently. Jefferies Group reiterated its buy rating in late August. RBC Capital recently upgraded Kirby to outperform.

One positive for Kirby is the purchase of the inland tank barge fleet from Seacor Holdings (for about $88 million in cash) which enhanced Kirby's scale in the U.S. inland tank barge market. The acquisition should add 16 cents to 24 cents to Kirby's annual earnings per share. It also moves Kirby's exposure away from the slippery crude oil market.

The company should improve utilization levels in the tank barge segment slowly. As a portion of customers continue to source equipment on spot contracts, volumes shouldn't witness any deceleration or an adverse pricing downtick.

Even as we recommend Kirby's upward curve, don't look for an immediate earnings boost. The company has already projected EPS of 50 cents to 65 cents in the third quarter, down from $1.04 in the year-earlier period.

The inland marine market, as seen in July, will weigh on the company's results in the short term, but coastal markets should hold steady.

Kirby's biggest plus is its robust cash generation potential, making it a future bonanza for investors.

Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization of $230.3 million for the first six months of 2016, contributed to the company's cash flow from operations, Kirby said in its latest earnings release. Free cash flow is $219 million for the past 12 months. That dwarfs the $11 million the company had in 2006.

Kirby's debt is also under control. While Seaspan carries $3.29 billion in debt (vs. a $1.4 billion market value). Kirby has less than $800 million in debt and a $3.19 billion market capitalization. 

At an EV/EBITDA valuation of 7.7 times, Kirby trades roughly in line with Matson (7.04 times) and Seaspan (7.6 times).

In fact, Kirby is a bargain when you look at smaller peers such as Tidewater (9.6 times) and Seacor Holdings (10.66 times).

Kirby is an enticiing proposition for patient investors who are fed up with the tepid returns offered by the broader markets.

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This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.