Industrials drifted lower Monday, continuing a general downward trend reflecting fears over the pace of the global economic recovery. Regional Federal Reserve banks reported bad news, and foot-dragging in Europe contributed to pessimism over global demand. Despite broad declines, however, a handful of companies managed impressive gains.
Federal Reserve banks in Chicago and Dallas separately released reports showing weakness in general business activity in their respective regions, with the sharpest contractions in manufacturing. Capital goods producers were down on the news, which builds on similarly gloomy reports last week from the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve banks.
A report also came out over the weekend in Germany's Der Spiegel newspaper suggesting that Greece would require an additional 20 billion euros in a bailout package. True to form, European officials declined to take or promise any decisive action, with the German Finance Minister claiming that nothing could be done until the publication of a report by a committee of experts. Failure to respond aggressively to fiscal crisis is probably the euro area's biggest risk, and companies with exposure to European demand were down Monday. Maritime shippers were the worst hit, with Diana Shipping (NYSE: DSX ) losing over 3%.
Other transporters were up, however, after a big sell-off last week. Railroad companies got hit last week when Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC ) issued guidance indicating lower-than-expected coal volumes, but I believe the market overreacted, putting railroads in buying territory. Monday, Norfolk Southern regained nearly 2%. Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP ) , with its low exposure to coal, made up the most ground, up 2.6%.
The freight company with the strongest growth wasn't a railroad, but less-than-truckload trucker Arkansas Best Corporation (Nasdaq: ABFS ) , up 6.3%. The company is more than 60% off its 52-week high, and sells for only seven times earnings. With only a $200 million market cap, and a dirt-cheap valuation, Arkansas Best's price can be pretty volatile day to day, but investors may have been reacting to oil reaching a seven-week low. Cheaper oil lowers truckers' operating costs and makes them more competitive with freight trains, which are more fuel efficient.
Packaging companies also defied the market's losses Monday, after a Credit Suisse analyst approvingly noted the industry's efforts to push through a price increase for containerboard. International Paper (NYSE: IP ) was up 3.6% on the news. The analyst, Albert Kabili, noted that, though demand remains sluggish, International Paper and its smaller peers could drive earnings through price increases and still stand to benefit from any global recovery.
Over the week, industrials investors should be on the lookout for reports from the Kansas City and Richmond Federal Reserve banks, which should give a clearer picture of manufacturing activity. The Kansas City region may have benefitted from increasing activity in natural gas fracking, which has been widespread in that area. Overproduction of natural gas from fracking contributes to low oil prices, but a slowdown in fracking could hurt manufacturers that service gas field operations.
With so many companies being affected by cheap natural gas, it's important to remember that, despite increased supply in North America, prices will eventually rise as demand picks up. One Motley Fool analyst predicts that turning point could come before 2014, and has identified one stock you need to own before it does. This report is free, but it's only available for a limited time, so get your copy today.