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FedEx's gloomy outlook signals more bad news from U.S. companies

FedEx, considered a bellwether of the global economy, slashes its profit projections for 2012 after another weak quarter.

September 19, 2012|By Andrew Tangel, Los Angeles Times
  • FedEx posted a $459-million profit during the quarter, down 1% from $464 million a year earlier. Above, a FedEx wortker in San Francisco.
FedEx posted a $459-million profit during the quarter, down 1% from $464… (Justin Sullivan, Getty…)

NEW YORK — FedEx Corp.'s gloomy business outlook may not be the last unwelcome delivery for investors in the coming weeks.

The global shipping giant slashed profit projections for 2012 after posting another quarterly slump in earnings. And its chief executive said trade has slowed to levels not seen during the last two significant economic downturns.

That's not exactly what Wall Street wants to hear from a company considered to be a bellwether of the global economy. And it also portends bad news for the hundreds of major U.S. companies that will start reporting third-quarter earnings in a few weeks.

"In the context of the last 10 years of corporate profits, we're seeing numbers now that match up with recessionary times," said Christine Short, a senior manager at S&P Capital IQ in New York.

Companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 index are expected to report that earnings declined by an average of 2.1% during the last three months, according to research by Thomson Reuters. Of those companies, 88 have issued "negative guidance" — signaling their profits will land below expectations.

It's just more evidence that the global economy has a way to go to a full recovery. Several countries in Europe are in recession, and the U.S. is struggling with high unemployment and weaker manufacturing growth. And FedEx Chief Executive Fred Smith said some experts have underestimated the severity of the slowdown in exports from China, where the company invested heavily over the last several years.

FedEx cited "weakness in the global economy" as a drag on its FedEx Express division. Instead of shipping goods quickly via their jets, some customers have been taking cheaper and longer routes via sea, rail or truck.

The Memphis company posted a $459-million profit during the quarter, down 1% from $464 million a year earlier. It also forecast earnings of $6.20 to $6.60 a share for the full year, down from the $6.90-to-$7.40 range it originally expected.

"Many customers and companies are looking at keeping expenses under control, and they're looking at trimming budgets," said Logan Purk, an analyst at Edward Jones in St. Louis.

Whether the third-quarter earnings expectations are already priced into stocks isn't clear.

Investors seemed to shrug off FedEx's earnings report Tuesday. The Dow Jones industrial average added 11.54 points, or 0.1%, to close at 13,564.64. The S&P 500 lost 1.87 points, or 0.1%, to close at 1,459.32. The Nasdaq closed down 0.87 of a point, staying essentially flat at 3,177.80.

Economic indicators, such as the federal government's monthly employment reports, may play a bigger role in how stocks perform later this year, Short said.

Bernie Williams, vice president for discretionary money management at USAA, said stock prices already reflect expected third-quarter earnings declines.

Investors, he said, seem to be paying more attention to the Fed. Last week the central bank announced it would launch a third round of monetary stimulus known as quantitative easing to lower borrowing costs and spur investment.

"The Fed's actions provide a lot of support for the market, and it wouldn't necessarily surprise me to see the market go up in the short term," Williams said. But, he added: "Eventually earnings matter, and right now earnings are coming down."

andrew.tangel@latimes.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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