For UPS, Being Better Than FedEx Isn’t Enough

Brooke Sutherland
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For UPS, Being Better Than FedEx Isn’t Enough

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- United Parcel Service Inc. is offering everything to investors that FedEx Corp. isn’t, and that’s still seemingly not enough.

The package-delivery company on Tuesday reported better-than-expected third-quarter earnings and maintained its full-year profit outlook. That’s a sharp contrast to FedEx’s bruising guidance cut just over a month ago, which the company blamed on a weakening global economy, and analysts blamed on idiosyncratic foot faults. UPS is trimming its capital expenditure budget by $500 million this year and next year, which will help boost its 2019 free cash flow to more than $4 billion. FedEx, meanwhile, is on track to burn cash in fiscal 2020 and Moody’s Investors Service Inc. recently lowered its outlook for the company’s credit rating. Management’s decision to nevertheless leave its $5.9 billion spending budget intact has left investors scratching their heads — particularly because the billions it has spent so far don’t appear to be yielding results.

UPS on Tuesday reported another quarterly improvement in its adjusted operating margin, a sign that its own push to invest in newer planes and automated systems is paying off as it manages a deluge of less profitable e-commerce shipments. And yet, the stock fell more than 4% in early trading. The problem is, as much as UPS is widening the execution gap between itself and FedEx, it can’t escape the weakening macroeconomic backdrop.

Revenue in the third quarter was marginally weaker than analysts had been expecting, and UPS warned that its profit guidance was contingent on “no further deterioration” in global trade uncertainty or U.S. industrial weakness. No one really knows what’s going to happen with trade relations. President Donald Trump signaled this week that negotiations over a partial deal with China are progressing and could lead to a signed agreement by November, but there’s little indication that the existing tariffs will be rolled back. I, for one, wouldn’t be willing to bet against a further slowdown in manufacturing, given declining shipment volumes at the railroads in the third quarter and decelerating sales growth at the likes of industrial distributor Fastenal Co.

Drilling down into UPS’s results, there’s a variety of other nitpick items that take on more importance in a weaker economy. For example, while unit costs improved by 2.5% on an adjusted basis in the U.S. domestic division, the average amount of revenue UPS collected per package in that business declined by about 1%. The third quarter brought a surge in volumes, with FedEx’s decision to stop carrying packages for Inc. in the U.S. likely driving more of the e-commerce giant’s packages to UPS. A weakening yield will raise questions about how profitable that business can ultimately be for UPS, and whether it made the right decision by sticking with a customer that’s also increasingly a competitor.

Adding to the jitters, UPS also announced on Tuesday that Jim Barber, chief operating officer and the heir apparent to CEO David Abney, was stepping down. Barber’s departure is a surprise, and it’s always going to raise eyebrows when a leadership change is announced without the simultaneous appointment of a successor. That being said, Abney has made an effort to shake up UPS’s staid culture by bringing in more executives from the outside. Earlier this year, UPS hired a PepsiCo Inc. executive, Brian Newman, to be its chief financial officer. Abney hired his chief transformation officer from Walmart Inc., his chief marketing officer from Xerox Corp. and his supply-chain solutions leader from logistics company DB Schenker. So the departure of Barber, a nearly 35-year veteran, would seem to be setting up an appointment in a similar vein. Grooming an outsider to succeed Abney would further differentiate UPS from FedEx, which is still run by founder Fred Smith and whose top executives have all been there for decades and act like it.

UPS is moving in the right direction, even if the economy isn’t.

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Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

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