NEW YORK (Reuters) - FedEx Corp's fourth-quarter earnings and outlook beat forecasts as higher shipping rates and tight cost controls more than offset a slowing economic recovery and high fuel prices.
The second largest U.S. package delivery company said on Wednesday it will spend more on technology and fuel efficient aircraft in fiscal 2012 compared with the just ended fiscal year, helping to boost revenue per package as some cost pressures subside and the economy grows moderately.
"This company is guiding to 30 to 40 percent earnings growth in a 2.5 to 3 percent GDP backdrop. That's pretty amazing," said Peter Nesvold, a Jefferies & Co analyst.
"You don't hear a lot of large-cap, non-energy companies guiding to that type of growth, and if anything this company is vulnerable to higher energy prices," he said. "Pricing and expense control" are driving up FedEx earnings.
Revenue per piece grew by at least mid single-digits in the fourth quarter, bolstered by fuel surcharges and increased weight per package, the company said.
FedEx has been able to pass through higher costs via fuel surcharges and still has room to raise prices without a major push-back from consumers, despite the uneven recovery, according to analysts and investors.
"The consumer to a certain degree is back flashing his credit card" and businesses, lean on inventory, are often willing to pay more for the fast shipments that FedEx provides, said George Young, portfolio manager with New Orleans-based Villere & Co., which holds FedEx shares.
FedEx shares gained 2.6 percent on Wednesday.
FedEx Chief Executive Officer Fred Smith said he expects growing demand for the company's services, which include shipments of everything from electronics to medications, as the economy improves in the second half of this calendar year.
"Our actions to improve yields continue to drive revenue and earnings growth across our transportation segments," said FedEx Chief Financial Officer Alan B. Graf. "Even with higher planned capital spending in fiscal 2012, margins, cash flows and returns are expected to improve year over year."
FedEx and UPS are considered to be economic bellwethers based on the sheer volume of goods they move. FedEx handles packages in its trucks and planes equivalent to about 4 percent of U.S. gross domestic product and 1.5 percent of global GDP.
Net profit for the quarter rose 33 percent to $558 million, or $1.75 per share in the quarter that ended May 31, from $419 million, or $1.33 per share a year ago. Analysts, on average, forecast a $1.72 per-share profit, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
FedEx forecast its fiscal 2012 profit rising to $6.35 to $6.85 per share -- leaving room for oil price volatility, Graf said. The mid-point of $6.60 a share topped Wall Street estimates. FedEx reported full year earnings per share of $4.57.
"There's no question we went through a brief soft patch" in the economy, Smith told analysts.
The combination of rising fuel prices, the devastation in Japan and consumer sentiment all contributed to the slowing of the economic recovery. However, he expects a turnaround now that crude oil prices are retreating.
FedEx sees improved consumer spending, industrial production and GDP in the second half of this calendar year. That forecast is based on the current market outlook for fuel prices and continued moderate global economic growth.
The Fed on Wednesday said the pace of U.S. economic recovery was slower than it had expected, though mainly due to temporary factors.
FedEx Express and the less expensive Ground segments, which account for more than 80 percent of company revenue, had double-digit revenue growth in the quarter.
"We expect higher margin revenue from international operations to approach U.S. domestic revenues at FedEx Express in FY2012 for the first time in our history," Smith said.
Fast-growing e-commerce drove up FedEx's SmartPost average daily volume 24 percent as revenue per package rose 8 percent. SmartPost involves shipping packages to the U.S. Postal Service, which in turn delivers to residential customers.
FedEx's freight division posted a long-awaited return to profitability after two company segments were combined.
FedEx plans to spend $4.2 billion in fiscal 2012, which includes the delivery of aircraft, payments toward future aircraft deliveries and investments in facilities, vehicles and technology.
Capital spending in fiscal 2011 was $3.4 billion, of which $2 billion was for aircraft and related equipment.
The company has been upgrading its fleet to more fuel- efficient aircraft.
Fourth-quarter revenue rose 12 percent to $10.55 billion from $9.43 billion a year ago, Memphis, Tennessee-based FedEx said on Wednesday. Wall Street analysts expected $10.4 billion in revenue, on average, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
FedEx shares rose 2.6 percent, or $2.31, to $91.44 on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares are off 1.7 percent so far this year. UPS's shares were up 0.7 percent on Wednesday.
Ryan Allen, portfolio manager at AMBS Investments in Grand Rapids, Michigan, owns FedEx shares and has a 12-month $110 price target.
"It's a good story -- a combination of better yield management, in other words pricing, and improving operating leverage," he said.
Reporting by Lynn Adler, editing by Dave Zimmerman, Maureen Bavdek and Carol Bishopric