FedEx's stock has limited upside

It's a risky bet to have bid up shares close to 30% over the past five months solely based on marginal improvements.

By Staff Oct 2, 2013 12:52PM

FedEx boxes on a delivery truck in New York City (© Mike Segar/Newscom/Reuters)By Richard Saintvilus

When shares of FedEx (FDX) reached a high of $118 more than a week TheStreet logoago, I reached for my wallet to check how much money I had.

No, I wasn't thinking about buying the stock. I needed some proof the full-blown economic recovery, on which this stock is trading, was actually real.

If we can look beyond the shutting down of our government, there are indeed meaningful signs of fiscal progress here in the U.S. But that's not necessarily the case for other FedEx markets like Europe, Asia and Latin America. Given that the stock now trades at the pre-global-recession highs of 2006, it's time to approach with caution and ship some FedEx shares out of your portfolio.

Now, I won't deny that in the company's more recent earnings report, FedEx did exactly what it had to do to deliver on both the top and bottom lines. But I'm not willing to overlook that although revenue advanced 2% year over year to $11 billion, this is still a company in transition and has instituted strict cost-cutting measures.

To that end, CEO Fred Smith, who has his finger on the pulse of the global economy, didn't seem too optimistic about what's around the corner, saying that "FedEx Express remains focused on reducing costs while facing challenging global economic conditions." Not surprisingly, even after the slight revenue and earnings beat, management wasn't confident enough to raise fiscal-year guidance, with growth expected to be in the range of 7% to 13%.

On some levels this could be seen as a positive, given that FedEx was forced to lower guidance earlier this year. But to the extent that the unchanged guidance supports a stock price that is trading as if all global economic worries are over, I don't believe it does.

Let's not forget, even though FedEx has always been a true leverage play on global economic growth, there is a reason why the company has begun to focus on cheaper shipping options. Management has realized, by virtue of sustained declines in the Express segment, that consumers in both developed and emerging markets are no longer pursuing FedEx's higher margin services.

That revenue in the Express segment, which is FedEx's largest business, fell by 0.3% serves as a perfect example. As has been the case over the past couple of quarters, management continues to improve efficiency within the Express segment, which can be seen in better profitability, including a 50-basis-point improvement in operating margins this quarter.

Oddly, even when there is good news, it comes with some concerns. Take, for instance, the company's strong ground business, which posted a solid 11% year-over-year revenue increase. While the operating income for that business grew by 5%, operating margins still fell by 100 basis points. Essentially, there was some inefficiency even in FedEx's best performing business.

I've said this once and it bears repeating here; the Street is not assessing FedEx's total performance relative to its restructuring plans. I appreciate that as iconic as FedEx is, the company deserves the benefit of the doubt. It's nonetheless a risky bet to have bid up this stock close to 30% over the past five months solely based on some marginal improvements, especially since management have not spoken favorably about future results.

These valuation concerns are not just unique to FedEx, though. Rivals UPS (UPS) and Old Dominion (ODFL), while dealing with similar operational issues, are both resting at near 52-week highs. For that matter, it seems the entire transportation sector, which includes Genesee & Wyoming (GWR), is all "on the move." This group has had an incredible run, but I just don't believe that it can continue for much longer, especially with shipping volumes on a perpetual decline.

In the case of FedEx, it's tough for me to ignore the cautious tenor of the company's management. While it's also possible that management just wants to lower expectations to not set the company up to fail, I can't entirely discount that it could be telling the truth. Given that the stock has -- in my view -- risen significantly above the company's performance, it's best to err on the side of caution here.

At the time of publication, the author held no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

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