UPS Shareholders Will Have to Wait to Celebrate

(Bloomberg Gadfly) -- United Parcel Service Inc. is doing right by President Donald Trump's standards, but that's hardly what shareholders want to see right now.

The delivery company's predominantly U.S.-focused business and high effective tax rate had Wall Street eyeing a cash and profit windfall as the recently passed tax cuts take hold. But a joyous announcement akin to rival FedEx Corp.'s December estimate of an extra $1 billion in profit this year was not to be. Instead, UPS on Thursday said it would funnel a large chunk of the extra resources back into capital expenditures to help adapt its network to the deluge of e-commerce shipments. Its 2018 guidance was also well short of analysts' expectations even at the high end of the range. Shareholders were unimpressed.

UPS Shareholders Will Have to Wait to Celebrate

Investing in one's own business is, of course, not inherently bad. That's allegedly what the tax bill was designed to encourage, as opposed to massive share buybacks. But in this case, Republicans' vision for increased investment in the U.S. economy is bumping up uncomfortably with shareholders' reality. The problem is UPS has been spending heavily for years on automation, aircraft and other technology to make its network run more smoothly. And it's just not clear what the payoff has been.

UPS Shareholders Will Have to Wait to Celebrate

Predicting e-commerce volumes, particularly around the holidays, has continued to confound UPS, resulting in delays around Cyber Monday this year and extra costs as it coped with them. UPS said Thursday that the adjusted operating profit margin in its U.S. domestic segment shrunk to 10.7 percent in the fourth quarter, compared to 12.3 percent in the same period a year earlier. Mind you, these challenges are after UPS spent $5.2 billion on capital expenditures in 2017 and $3 billion in 2016.

UPS's struggles to profitably handle the surge of e-commerce shipments are all the more troubling as Amazon.com Inc. prepares to make more inroads into its business. Bloomberg News reported earlier this week that Amazon is expanding a logistics service for its third-party merchants that would give the internet giant control over deliveries without having to store inventory in its own warehouses.

UPS Shareholders Will Have to Wait to Celebrate

FedEx has also been updating its network, but it's worth noting that the company stuck by its original call for $5.9 billion in capital expenditures this year, even as it announced a $1.5 billion modernization of some of its hubs in January. In its most recent quarter, FedEx also increased operating margins in each of its main divisions -- express, ground and freight -- after adjusting for integration expenses tied to its 2016 acquisition of TNT Express. It will report results for the Christmas season this spring.

The pain from UPS's increased spending announcement would have been more acute without the benefits of tax reform. But that's cold comfort to investors who had been prepared to celebrate this morning.  

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

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

To contact the author of this story: Brooke Sutherland in New York at bsutherland7@bloomberg.net.

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