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FedEx Flop Adds Fuel to Worrisome Market Signal

Robert Burgess

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The announcement by FedEx Corp. late Tuesday that it was slashing its profit outlook, in large part because of a softening global economy, won’t only be painful for the shipping company’s shareholders. It’s bound to worsen one of the market’s more noticeable weak spots.

FedEx shares tumbled about 11% in early trading Wednesday, wiping out the stock’s gain for the year after the company said that its best-case scenario for adjusted earnings in the fiscal year ending in May was only $13 a share – a dollar short of the lowest of 25 analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

As the second-largest constituent in the 20-member Dow Jones Transportation Average, accounting for 9.87% of the benchmark, the decline in FedEx’s shares are sure to weigh on the index’s performance. But that’s only part of the reason why the stock market’s bulls should be worried. The bigger cause for concern has to do with something called the Dow Theory.

Around for more than a century, the Dow Theory holds that if either the benchmark Dow Jones Industrial Average or the Dow Jones Transportation Average reaches a new record, the other must soon follow to confirm a bullish outlook. The broad Dow gauge has done its part, closing at a new all-time high twice in the past 12 months, first in October and again in July.

The transports, whose constituents include economic bellwethers such as railroad Norfolk Southern Corp. and trucking firm Ryder System Inc. in addition to FedEx, hit a high a year ago, but has since struggled, falling 7.48% percent. That compares with a gain of 3.66% for the main gauge. In other words, the longer the transports underperform, the more tenuous the bull market in stocks looks.

When it comes to FedEx, those who follow the package-delivery giant closely know that some of its troubles are its of its own making. Still, the economic headwinds it cited are real; it shouldn’t be a surprise that transport companies are struggling. The escalating trade war has done damage to the global economy, with the International Monetary Fund projecting that global economic growth this year will be the slowest since the financial crisis. The latest figures from the CPB World Trade Monitor administered by the Dutch Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis show global trade volumes have languished for seven straight months. World Bank President David Malpass said Tuesday that the global economy is poised to decelerate more than previously estimated.

Closer to home, the Cass Freight Index, a monthly measure of U.S. rail, trucking and airfreight volume, dropped 3% in August from a year earlier, the ninth consecutive month of declines. The figures released Friday blamed tariffs for stalling trade, according to Bloomberg News’s Brendan Murray. “The shipments index has gone from warning of a potential slowdown to signaling an economic contraction,” according to the commentary included in the report. “We see a growing risk that GDP will go negative by year’s end.” The risk of a downturn will likely lead Federal Reserve policy makers to lower their benchmark interest rate on Wednesday as they wrap up a two-day meeting, though with rates already so low, further reductions may be less effective at spurring growth.  

It’s been a remarkable run in the equity markets this year, with the MSCI USA Index rallying 20%. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t this nagging feeling that the long bull market in stocks is living on borrowed time. 

To contact the author of this story: Robert Burgess at bburgess@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Beth Williams at bewilliams@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Robert Burgess is an editor for Bloomberg Opinion. He is the former global executive editor in charge of financial markets for Bloomberg News. As managing editor, he led the company’s news coverage of credit markets during the global financial crisis.

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