Norfolk Southern is paying $6.5 million to derailment victims. Meanwhile, it's shelling out $7.5 billion for shareholders
(CNN) -- Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw pledged Tuesday the freight railroad will spend $6.5 million to help those affected by the release of toxic chemicals from its derailment nearly three weeks ago in East Palestine, Ohio. But in a plan released earlier this year, the company said it's planning to spend more than a thousand times that amount — $7.5 billion — to repurchase its own shares in order to benefit its shareholders.
The company spent $3.4 billion on share repurchases last year, and $3.1 billion in 2021, bringing its recent share repurchases to $6.5 billion. That towers over what it said is its financial commitment to East Palestine, which it said exceeds $6.4 million in direct aid to families and government agencies, in addition to what will be required in cleanup costs.
There is no estimate as to the total cost to Norfolk Southern from the derailment, including the cost of cleanup that the Environmental Protection Agency says will be the railroad's responsibility.
Billions to shareholders
In March 2022, Norfolk Southern announced a new $10 billion share repurchase plan. Its annual financial report, filed just hours before the derailment this month, shows that it still had $7.5 billion available to buy additional shares under that repurchase plan as of December 31.
Norfolk Southern did not respond to questions Wednesday on whether it expects to change its share repurchase plans in the wake of the derailment.
The company also returned an additional $1.2 billion to shareholders in the form of dividend payments in 2022, and $1 billion in 2021, bringing total payments to shareholders to $4.6 billion last year and $4.1 billion in 2021.
The shareholders did much better than the company's 19,000 employees. Total employee compensation in 2022 came to $2.6 billion, up from $2.4 billion in 2021.
The amount that Norfolk Southern and other major freight railroads are spending on shareholders got a lot of attention in December, when they successfully fought a move in Congress to require them to give hourly workers at least seven sick days a year as part of a labor contract imposed on the industry by Congress in order to avoid an economically crippling rail strike. And it's getting new attention in the wake of the derailment, along with questions about whether the environmental disaster could have been avoided if the railroad had spent more on staffing and safety.
"Corporations do stock buybacks, they do big dividend checks, they lay off workers," said Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, on CNN's State of the Union on Sunday. "They don't invest in safety rules and safety regulations, and this kind of thing happens."
Railroads fought safety rules as too costly
The accident is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. While the cause has yet to be determined, it is known that freight railroads have fought tougher safety rules in the past.
One rule the industry successfully fought would have required a more modern braking system on trains carrying significant amounts of hazardous materials. The Federal Railroad Administration, which proposed the rule under the Obama administration, estimated a more modern braking system would reduce by nearly 20% the number of rail cars in a derailment that puncture and release their contents.
The FRA estimated those better brakes would cost the entire industry $493 million, spread over a period of 20 years. The Association of American Railroads, the trade industry group that represents most US freight railroads, estimated a much greater cost — about $3 billion, but again, spread over 20 years. That would mean around $150 million a year for an entire industry that is earning billions of dollars of annual profits.
Still, it was able to block the rule from ever taking effect, based partly on the argument it was too costly for the potential benefit.
"The railroads are quick to point out their lack of funds to provide adequate staffing, paid sick leave and improved safety, yet they have billions of dollars to spend on stock repurchases," said Eddie Hall, national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the industry's second-largest union behind the one that represents conductors.
Share repurchases on the rise
Share repurchases are designed to help increase the value of the stock by reducing the number of shares outstanding.
In theory, each remaining share becomes more valuable since it represents a greater percentage of the company's overall ownership. The earnings per share, a key measure used by investors to judge a company's profitability, can rise even if the total dollars earned by the company goes down, as the pool of shares available to the public shrinks further.
But Norfolk Southern's profits aren't going down. They're going up — by quite a bit. It posted record profits from railway operations of $4.45 billion in 2021, and broke that record in 2022 when it earned $4.8 billion on that basis.
Other freight railroads are also reporting improving profits, and have joined Norfolk Southern in massive share repurchases.
Union Pacific purchased $6.3 billion worth of shares in 2022, and has plans to purchase an additional 84 million shares, worth more than $16 billion at its current value. CSX repurchased $4.7 billion worth of shares last year and has plans to buy an additional $3.3 billion going forward. Like Norfolk Southern, both UP and CSX spent more on share repurchases than they did on total employee compensation.
Share repurchases are not limited to the rail industry. Chevron recently announced plans to repurchase $75 billion worth of its stock with windfall record profits that came from high oil prices. Across corporate America, share repurchases reached almost $1 trillion for the first time last year, coming in at $936 billion according to S&P Dow Jones Indices, up from $882 billion in 2021.
Share repurchases are forecast to top $1 trillion this year.
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