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What Does Billionaire Ken Griffin’s Citadel See In Norfolk Southern Corp. (NSC)?

In May, billionaire Ken Griffin’s Citadel Investment Group filed its 13F for the first quarter of 2013, disclosing many of its long positions in U.S. stocks as of the end of March. We track 13Fs from hundreds of hedge funds, primarily as part of our work developing investment strategies (we have found, for example, that the most popular small cap stocks among hedge funds earn an average excess return of 18 percentage points per year). However, we also like to look for significant changes in funds’ filings. When we looked at Citadel’s most recent 13F, we noticed that it had increased its stake in railroad Norfolk Southern Corp. (NYSE:NSC) to a total of 2.6 million shares from a very small position at the beginning of the year (see more of Griffin’s stock picks).

While Norfolk Southern reported an increase in its earnings in the first quarter of 2013 versus a year earlier, this looks to have been driven by income not related to the company’s core operations. Actual operating income declined by 7%, with revenue falling slightly as well. There have been some share repurchases over this time frame, and cash flow from operations has certainly been high enough to cover both capital expenditures and Norfolk Southern Corp. (NYSE:NSC)’s moderate dividend yield (though CFO also came in lower than a year ago), but still we’d be somewhat concerned that the railroad has not been performing well.

CITADEL INVESTMENT GROUPThe stock is not priced for much growth, however, with its current valuation resulting in a trailing earnings multiple of only 14. That pricing would incorporate future earnings per share growth, but it’s possible that continued buybacks could make Norfolk Southern Corp. (NYSE:NSC) about fairly valued if business is about flat. Wall Street analysts are looking for EPS to increase over the next year and a half, and it looks to be at a rapid enough rate that the company would in fact have to grow its net income as well as supplement its earnings through repurchases. Michael Karsch’s Karsch Capital Management initiated a position of 1.6 million shares in Norfolk Southern between January and March, making the stock its largest single-stock holding (find Karsch’s favorite stocks).