When Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B) announced its $34 billion acquisition of Burlington Northern Sante Fe (NYSE:BNI), Buffett remarked that it was a big bet on the long-term recovery of the U.S. economic system. Indeed, rails carry our most essential commodities like coal and other supplies we depend on each day. As the economy improves, demand for such commodities improves as well.
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In a somewhat similar fashion, investors might want to consider a bet on global shipping giant Federal Express (NYSE:FDX) as a excellent long-term play on a sustained economic rebound. Like Buffett, I emphasize "long-term." While Berkshire will likely own Burlington for decades, investors would likely need to consider a five-year horizon to appreciate what Fed Ex offers as an investment. (For related reading, see Think Like Warren Buffett.)
The first major appeal is the entrenched duopoly that FedEx shares with UPS (NYSE:UPS). Over time, FedEx and UPS will solidify their duopolistic position and with that will come a nearly impossible barrier to entry. That economic moat is a huge plus. This past January, privately held DHL, a German shipping company, pulled out of the United States.
Numbers You Can't Ignore
Despite the fact that FedEx shares have more than doubled since their March lows, the future growth potential for FedEx is enormous. This economic recession has damaged or eliminated a lot of smaller competition, which has enabled FedEx to grow its business despite the weak environment. FedEx has more than doubled its market share of the U.S. domestic market to over 22% today versus 10% in 1999.
During the economic peak, FedEx shares fetched nearly $125 a share against EPS of $6.67, or just under 19 times earnings. Not spared from the recession, FedEx earned $3.67 for its most recent fiscal year ended May 2009. Analysts estimate FedEx will earn $4.11 in fiscal 2011 and in a normal economy anywhere from $7 to $9 share as a result of a leaner operating structure and increased market share.
The Ultimate Question
Of course the million dollar question is when and if we will see a normal economy anytime soon. Recessions may officially end in a relatively short period of time, but their aftershocks can go on for years. Nonetheless, FedEx helps businesses and the economy function by facilitating the efficient transport of goods. Just like rails are important to things like coal and grains, FedEx is critical to the transport of documents, packages and business inventory. Such items will naturally go through periods of declining volume, but as with any cycle, usually improve over time. That improvement should translate into increased profit for FedEx and reward long-term investors.
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