How do you navigate an increasingly protectionist/isolationist political environment within the U.S. when one of the primary aspects of your business is facilitating trade between Mexico and the United States? That is the question Kansas City Southern (NYSE: KSU, “KCS”, the “Company”) currently faces as the United States, Canada and Mexico begin renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (“NAFTA”).
“The NAFTA Railroad”
KCS is a railroad holding company with both U.S. and international operations with two primary subsidiaries: Kansas City Southern Railway Company (“KCSR”) and Kansas City Southern de México, S.A. de C.V. (“KCSM”).  Across all of the Company’s subsidiaries, KCS operates approximately 6,600 route miles of track, extending south from the Midwest and into Mexico, and maintains connections to all other Class I railroads.  See Figure 1 for a detailed map of KCS’s rail network.
Figure 1 – KCS Rail Network
Notably, around 50% of KCS’s revenues are from the Company’s Mexico operations (see Figure 2 – KCS Historical Revenue Mix). KCS’s substantial exposure to the Mexican market is due to its KCSM rail operations, which operate the shortest passageway between Mexico City and Laredo, Texas.  The Mexican government granted KCS this essential corridor via a 50-year concession agreement in 1997 (expiry in June 2047; exclusive through 2027) – because of the agreement, KCS and Ferromex are the only Class I railroads that directly operate assets in Mexico.  Key terms of the agreement provide that KCSM has the “right to use, but does not own, all track and buildings that are necessary for the rail lines’ operation”, must pay a 1.25% annual concession duty on gross revenues, and adhere to certain investment commitments. 
With NAFTA’s passage in 1994 and the concession agreement signed in 1997, KCS went so far as to brand itself “The NAFTA Railroad” and remains one of the more interested parties in the NAFTA renegotiation process.  Investors certainly shared this sentiment with a drop in the Company’s stock price post-election from $92.55 to $82.48, erasing nearly a $1 billion in its market capitalization.
Figure 2 – KCS Historical Revenue Mix
“Personally, I Don’t Think We Can Make a Deal”
With the current administration’s approach to NAFTA vacillating from exiting the treaty to renegotiating the agreement in earnest but with limited confidence (Donald Trump – “Personally, I don’t think we can make a deal… I think we’ll end up probably terminating NAFTA at some point”), KCS has taken it upon itself to enter the political fray, advocating for sensible changes as it relates to the NAFTA renegotiation. 
Post-election, Pat Ottensmeyer, KCS’s CEO, was elected chairman of the strategic trade initiatives working group of the U.S.-Mexico CEO Dialogue, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce group aimed at facilitating a discussion between government officials from both countries with industry leaders.   In this role, Ottensmeyer testified in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Way & Means outlining the benefits of NAFTA and recommending how the administration should approach the renegotiation, specifically emphasizing an expedient, trilateral dialogue which leverages existing amendment procedures.  Beyond interfacing with the government to ensure adequate reform, KCS has been proactive in engaging with its existing customers.  Thus far, conversations have been positive with KCS indicating that “…our customers in Mexico…have consistently asked us to keep making investments in Mexico, because they want to grow in Mexico, they want to invest in Mexico and they need us in order to grow.”  KCS’s investment in Mexico has totaled approximately $4.5 billion since 1997. 
Making Kansas City Southern Great Again
Given the Company’s stance on continued investment in its Mexican operations during the NAFTA renegotiation process, which is arguably required from a public positioning/competitive perspective, KCS should work to de-risk its capital expenditures (guidance of approx. $550mm to $560mm for FY17 on LTM 9/30/17 revenues of $2,521mm) by limiting its investment to projects where it can better share risk.    The Company’s investment of approx. $150mm in the Sasol yard is a great example of a de-risked project whereby KCS retains a lease revenue stream and is guaranteed both switching revenue on all of the carloads as well as a guaranteed number of carloads moving on the KCS network. 
Long-term, KCS should work to diversify its Mexican operation revenues by pursuing more MX-domestic revenue streams and customers. The Company provides limited explicit disclosure on the breakdown of its Mexico operation revenues between cross-border traffic and domestic traffic; however, the Company does provide disclosure on cross-border traffic revenues in the aggregate which is approx. $710mm over the most recent LTM period (albeit, this figure is understated due to it excluding traffic interchanged with a competing railroad at the border).  Cross-border revenues are most at-risk as it relates to NAFTA renegotiations – by further building out the Company’s MX-domestic revenue stream, KCS will decrease its sensitivity to NAFTA.
What other actions can KCS undertake in order to de-risk its Mexico operations from potential NAFTA interruptions?
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- Kansas City Southern. 2016 Form 10-K Annual Report. January 27, 2017. https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/54480/000005448017000007/kcs1231201610k.htm, accessed November 2017.
- Dornbrook, James. “KC Southern CEO: A lot at stake if there’s a ‘bad outcome’ on NAFTA.” Kansas City Business Journal, April 20, 2017. https://www.bizjournals.com/kansascity/news/2017/04/20/kansas-city-southern-ceo-ottensmeyer-nafta.html, accessed November 2017.
- Donnan, Shawn. “Donald Trump revives threat to pull US out of NAFTA.” Financial Times Limited, August 23, 2017. https://www.ft.com/content/cfdcec24-87c2-11e7-bf50-e1c239b45787, accessed November 2017.
- Stephens, Bill. “Railroads await specifics on Trump plans for taxes and trade.” Trains, January 20, 2017. http://trn.trains.com/news/news-wire/2017/01/20-hunter-and-ceos, accessed November 2017.
- Kansas City Southern. “Kansas City Southern President and CEO Ottensmeyer Tapped to Lead U.S.-Mexico CEO Dialogue Strategic Trade Initiatives Working Group.” U.S. Chamber of Commerce News, January 12, 2017. http://www.kcsouthern.com/media/news/kcs-news/kansas-city-southern-president-and-ceo-ottensmeyer-tapped-to-lead-u-s-mexico-ceo-dialogue-strategic-trade-initiatives-working-group, accessed November 2017.
- Ottensmeyer, Pat. Oral Testimony of Patrick J. Ottensmeyer, President and CEO, Kansas City Southern, Modernization of the North American Free Trade Agreement. July 18, 2017. https://waysandmeans.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/20170718TR-Testimony-Ottensmeyer.pdf, accessed November 2017.
- Hutchins, Reynolds. “KCS tries to assure NAFTA-worried shippers.” Journal of Commerce, January 20, 2017. https://www.joc.com/rail-intermodal/class-i-railroads/kansas-city-southern-railway/kcs-tries-assure-nafta-worried-shippers_20170120.html, accessed November 2017.
- Kansas City Southern. Stephens Fall Investment Conference Transcript. November 8, 2017.
- Kansas City Southern. 2017 Form 10-Q Quarterly Report. October 20, 2017. https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/54480/000005448017000171/kcs10q09302017.htm, accessed November 2017.
- Kansas City Southern. Third Quarter 2017 Earnings Presentation. October 20, 2017. http://investors.kcsouthern.com/~/media/Files/K/KC-Southern-IR-V2/quarterly-results/2017/q3-earnings/q3-2017-analyst-presentation-ksu.pdf, accessed November 2017.