Will Norfolk Southern Help You Retire Rich?

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Now more than ever, a comfortable retirement depends on secure, stable investments. Unfortunately, the right stocks for retirement won't just fall into your lap. In this series, I look at 10 measures to show what makes a great retirement-oriented stock.

Riding the rails may seem like a quaint, outdated way of doing business. But recently, it's been smart business, and railroad company Norfolk Southern (NYS: NSC) is staking its claim in the lucrative industry. With fuel prices at high levels, the energy advantages of rail transport become increasingly important. But will a plunge in commodity prices put an end to the boom times for railroads? Below, we'll revisit how Norfolk Southern does on our 10-point scale.

The right stocks for retirees
With decades to go before you need to tap your investments, you can take greater risks, weighing the chance of big losses against the potential for mind-blowing returns. But as retirement approaches, you no longer have the luxury of waiting out a downturn.


Sure, you still want good returns, but you also need to manage your risk and protect yourself against bear markets, which can maul your finances at the worst possible time. The right stocks combine both of these elements in a single investment.

When scrutinizing a stock, retirees should look for:

  • Size. Most retirees would rather not take a flyer on unproven businesses. Bigger companies may lack their smaller counterparts' growth potential, but they do offer greater security.
  • Consistency. While many investors look for fast-growing companies, conservative investors want to see steady, consistent gains in revenue, free cash flow, and other key metrics. Slow growth won't make headlines, but it will help prevent the kind of ugly surprises that suddenly torpedo a stock's share price.
  • Stock stability. Conservative retirement investors prefer investments that move less dramatically than typical stocks, and they particularly want to avoid big losses. These investments will give up some gains during bull markets, but they won't fall as far or as fast during bear markets. Beta measures volatility, but we also want a track record of solid performance as well.
  • Valuation. No one can afford to pay too much for a stock, even if its prospects are good. Using normalized earnings multiples helps smooth out one-time effects, giving you a longer-term context.
  • Dividends. Most of all, retirees look for stocks that can provide income through dividends. Retirees want healthy payouts now and consistent dividend growth over time -- as long as it doesn't jeopardize the company's financial health.

With those factors in mind, let's take a closer look at Norfolk Southern.

Factor

What We Want to See

Actual

Pass or Fail?

SizeMarket cap > $10 billion$23.3 billionPass
ConsistencyRevenue growth > 0% in at least four of five past years4 yearsPass
Free cash flow growth > 0% in at least four of past five years2 yearsFail
Stock stabilityBeta < 0.91.07Fail
Worst loss in past five years no greater than 20%(4.8%)Pass
ValuationNormalized P/E < 1813.05Pass
DividendsCurrent yield > 2%2.8%Pass
5-year dividend growth > 10%19.5%Pass
Streak of dividend increases >= 10 years11 yearsPass
Payout ratio < 75%30.1%Pass
 
Total score8 out of 10

Source: S&P Capital IQ. Total score = number of passes.

Since we looked at Norfolk Southern last year, the company has kept its eight-point score. The stock hasn't performed as well as some shareholders would like, but as long as energy prices stay high, the company is likely to remain a good investment.

Railroad companies across the nation have benefited from an increase in rail use for transport. Both CSX (NYS: CSX) and Union Pacific (NYS: UNP) have cited substantial jumps in intermodal revenue as a key component of their growth, and with FedEx (NYS: FDX) having specifically chosen Norfolk Southern as its primary eastern intermodal network provider, Norfolk Southern has an interest in keeping that segment strong.

But another thing that sets Norfolk Southern apart is its dedication to environmentalism. As a leader in pushing the railroad industry toward hybrid locomotives a few years ago, Norfolk Southern now has shifted toward another green initiative by committing to using renewable diesel fuel from a joint venture of Tyson Foods and Syntroleum (NAS: SYNM) .

For retirees and other conservative investors, the dividend increases that railroad companies have delivered recently have been nothing short of spectacular. The fact that Norfolk Southern has a big yield advantage over CSX, Union Pacific, and other peers makes it a logical choice for income-hungry investors, and lingering high energy costs should keep supporting the stock for the foreseeable future.

Keep searching
Finding exactly the right stock to retire with is a tough task, but it's not impossible. Searching for the best candidates will help improve your investing skills, and teach you how to separate the right stocks from the risky ones.

If you really want to retire rich, no one stock will get the job done. Instead, you need to know how to prepare for your golden years. The Motley Fool's latest special report will give you all the details you need to get a smart investing plan going, plus it reveals three smart stocks for a rich retirement. But don't waste another minute -- click here and read it today.

Add Norfolk Southern to My Watchlist, which will aggregate our Foolish analysis on it and all your other stocks.

At the time this article was published

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