Last week's financial press bemoaned the fact that FedEx was predicting lower earnings due to the slowdown in world commerce. Various measurements of the transportation industry have always been used as forward indicators by stock market prognosticators, so the FedEx announcement was significant, but needs to be understood in context.
But what struck me as a source of optimism was the report that the Apple (AAPL) iPhone 5 -- just a single product -- will substantially impact FedEx revenues positively, according to an account in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. To think that one product could "move the needle" on a giant transportation company illustrates the magnitude of Apple's impact ... and the extent to which new technology can create pleasant surprises.
Let's review some history. The first of the transportation averages was the one pioneered by Charles Henry Dow, who was the founder of the Wall Street Journal in 1882. He kept track of a collection of railroad companies as well as industrial "smokestack" companies -- the latter becoming known as the familiar Dow Jones industrial average -- or just "the Dow."
Shifts in transportation are closely watched. The so-called "Dow Theory," for instance, ties the transportation averages to future changes in the industrial average.
The fundamental idea is that manufactured goods need to be shipped to retailers for people to buy. If that shipping process declines because retailers aren't selling what they already have in stock, then sooner or later the smokestack companies will have to cut back production and they will make less money. Their stock prices, as a result, will decline.
The Dow transportation average is no longer just railroads. It includes FedEx and airlines like Delta. So, if FedEx is symptomatic of a trend, then we could be anticipating a softer economy sometime later next year. Those who subscribe to the Dow Theory and who follow it might expect to beat the "buy and hold" approach by as much as 1 or 2 percent per year, according to Jack Schannep, the editor of a newsletter on the Dow Theory, as quoted in AAII Journal. That advantage compounded is huge over time, although trading costs and taxes would reduce the figure substantially.
Elsewhere, the Baltic Dry Index is the measurement of the price of shipping bulk goods like building materials, iron ore, wheat, etc. Prices can be very volatile, because the supply of ships remains relatively constant. Right now, the Baltic Dry Index is back down to where it was before the economy in 2008 saw the gross domestic product drop by 9 percent. This is consistent with the painful realization that FedEx is experiencing.
My friends at the Institute for Trend Research (ITR) say as much. Their forward indicators do not include transportation alone, but one of their strongest single indicators is purchasing manager activity. That factor is still increasing, but at a pace that is slowing down. What this portends is that we will have a mild recession -- or at least an economic slowdown -- late in 2013 and 2014.
While some of this information may be disturbing, it helps to remember that the stock market doesn't always respond to what is happening in the economy. The economy can actually be shrinking while companies continue to make plenty of money. This happened in 2008 when U.S. public companies made more net profit than they had made in 2007. The stock market downdraft was a result of a financial collapse and resulting panic. The fact that it was unrelated to corporate profits was what contributed to the substantial "snapback" from 2009 to the present.
And back to the iPhone and my optimism. The good news is that the ITR longer-term composite matrix of several forward indicators combined suggests a dramatic world economic boom in the second half of this decade. So, anyone tempted to take some chips off the table at today's all-time high might want to pause if they have more than another 10 years to retirement. The best could be yet to come.