What Fastenal and MSC Industrial Earnings Say About the Industrial Economy

Fastenal and MSC Industrial made some relatively bullish noises on the industrial sector recently. Here is what they said, and why it's important.

Apr 21, 2014 at 1:59PM

Investors in the industrial sector have faced a significant imponderable over the winter. Severe weather conditions were always going hit quarterly earnings, but they were also going to make it harder to judge the underlying conditions in the industrial economy. With these thoughts in mind it's a good idea to look at industrial supply companies such as Fastenal (NASDAQ:FAST), MSC Industrial Supply (NYSE:MSM), and WESCO International (NYSE:WCC). Not only are they all exposed to the industrial sector, but they tend to have short-cycle order patterns. In other words, they get the first view on where trends are headed.

Fastenal and MSC Industrial give earnings
At the start of this earnings season, Alcoa came down on the side of those who saw the weather as the primary cause of weakness in the construction industry over the winter. The subsequent results from MSC Industrial and Fastenal offer a pretty similar story. For example, MSC's management talked of a weather-relate "slow start" in December and January, but then its organic growth rate picked up from 2%-3% to "the mid-6% range in February." 

Fastenal's improvement in March can clearly be seen by looking at sales growth at its stores that have been open for more than five years:

Source: Fastenal presentations

WESCO last gave results in January, and despite reporting that its sales that month were down 4% to date, the company stuck to its guidance of flat to 3% growth for the full year. Given that Fastenal and MSC Industrial have reported a rebound in growth, it's reasonable to expect that WESCO will hit its targets.

What Fastenal and MSC Industrial said about construction and manufacturing
The industrial supply companies also give good color on which specific sectors of the economy are doing well. Fastenal generates roughly 50% of its sales from manufacturing, with 25% coming from nonresidential construction, while MSC Industrial (excluding its recent acquisition of Barnes Group's North American distribution business) is more of an industrial play that generates 76% of sales from manufacturing customers. WESCO is the most exposed to construction end markets, as 32% of its sales come from the sector, with only 43% from industrial customers.

Interestingly, MSC Industrial and Fastenal served notice that the industrial sector is improving, and there are signs that nonresidential construction has started to turn the corner after a weak 2013. For example, Fastenal reported that its sales to manufacturing customers increased by 6.3% in 2013, but improved to 9% in the weather-affected first quarter of 2014 and by a solid 11.5% in March. This is especially impressive given that 40% of its manufacturing sales come from heavy equipment, a sector that includes still-weak areas of the economy such as agriculture, mining, and defense.

MSC Industrial also reported that manufacturing is trending upward. CEO Erik Gershwind outlined the following on the earnings conference call: "The manufacturing environment, particularly the metal working sector, has improved considerably from where it had been during the last 1.5 years. We've moved past the contraction that we were seeing during our fiscal 2013 and are now in what we would characterize as a moderate growth environment."

The underlying trend of improvement is also seen in Fastenal's construction related sales -- albeit at a weaker rate. Fastenal grew construction sales at 2.5% in 2013, 2.9% in the first quarter (where weather would have had a serious impact), and 7.5% in March.

The takeaway
All told, the indications are that underlying conditions are improving in the North American manufacturing sector, and to a lesser extent the nonresidential construction market. Investing Fools should expect some short-term upside from companies exposed to these markets.

MSC Industrial looks best placed in the short term due to its heavy manufacturing focus, but Fastenal's exposure to heavy equipment industries may relatively hold it back in 2014. Arguably, WESCO is the stock with the biggest upside surprise potential. Its industrial results should be solid, and if commercial construction improves then the company could outperform in 2014.

Top dividend stocks for the next decade
The smartest investors know that dividend stocks simply crush their non-dividend paying counterparts over the long term. That's beyond dispute. They also know that a well-constructed dividend portfolio creates wealth steadily, while still allowing you to sleep like a baby. Knowing how valuable such a portfolio might be, our top analysts put together a report on a group of high-yielding stocks that should be in any income investor's portfolio. To see our free report on these stocks, just click here now.


Lee Samaha has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends MSC Industrial Direct. The Motley Fool owns shares of MSC Industrial Direct. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

1 Key Step to Get Rich

Our mission at The Motley Fool is to help the world invest better. Whether that’s helping people overcome their fear of stocks all the way to offering clear and successful guidance on complicated-sounding options trades, we can help.

Feb 1, 2016 at 4:54PM

To be perfectly clear, this is not a get-rich action that my Foolish colleagues and I came up with. But we wouldn't argue with the approach.

A 2015 Business Insider article titled, "11 websites to bookmark if you want to get rich" rated The Motley Fool as the #1 place online to get smarter about investing.

"The Motley Fool aims to build a strong investment community, which it does by providing a variety of resources: the website, books, a newspaper column, a radio [show], and [newsletters]," wrote (the clearly insightful and talented) money reporter Kathleen Elkins. "This site has something for every type of investor, from basic lessons for beginners to investing commentary on mutual funds, stock sectors, and value for the more advanced."

Our mission at The Motley Fool is to help the world invest better, so it's nice to receive that kind of recognition. It lets us know we're doing our job.

Whether that's helping the entirely uninitiated overcome their fear of stocks all the way to offering clear and successful guidance on complicated-sounding options trades, we want to provide our readers with a boost to the next step on their journey to financial independence.

Articles and beyond

As Business Insider wrote, there are a number of resources available from the Fool for investors of all levels and styles.

In addition to the dozens of free articles we publish every day on our website, I want to highlight two must-see spots in your tour of fool.com.

For the beginning investor

Investing can seem like a Big Deal to those who have yet to buy their first stock. Many investment professionals try to infuse the conversation with jargon in order to deter individual investors from tackling it on their own (and to justify their often sky-high fees).

But the individual investor can beat the market. The real secret to investing is that it doesn't take tons of money, endless hours, or super-secret formulas that only experts possess.

That's why we created a best-selling guide that walks investors-to-be through everything they need to know to get started. And because we're so dedicated to our mission, we've made that available for free.

If you're just starting out (or want to help out someone who is), go to www.fool.com/beginners, drop in your email address, and you'll be able to instantly access the quick-read guide ... for free.

For the listener

Whether it's on the stationary exercise bike or during my daily commute, I spend a lot of time going nowhere. But I've found a way to make that time benefit me.

The Motley Fool offers five podcasts that I refer to as "binge-worthy financial information."

Motley Fool Money features a team of our analysts discussing the week's top business and investing stories, interviews, and an inside look at the stocks on our radar. It's also featured on several dozen radio stations across the country.

The hosts of Motley Fool Answers challenge the conventional wisdom on life's biggest financial issues to reveal what you really need to know to make smart money moves.

David Gardner, co-founder of The Motley Fool, is among the most respected and trusted sources on investing. And he's the host of Rule Breaker Investing, in which he shares his insights into today's most innovative and disruptive companies ... and how to profit from them.

Market Foolery is our daily look at stocks in the news, as well as the top business and investing stories.

And Industry Focus offers a deeper dive into a specific industry and the stories making headlines. Healthcare, technology, energy, consumer goods, and other industries take turns in the spotlight.

They're all informative, entertaining, and eminently listenable ... and I don't say that simply because the hosts all sit within a Nerf-gun shot of my desk. Rule Breaker Investing and Answers contain timeless advice, so you might want to go back to the beginning with those. The other three take their cues from the market, so you'll want to listen to the most recent first. All are available at www.fool.com/podcasts.

But wait, there's more

The book and the podcasts – both free ... both awesome – also come with an ongoing benefit. If you download the book, or if you enter your email address in the magical box at the podcasts page, you'll get ongoing market coverage sent straight to your inbox.

Investor Insights is valuable and enjoyable coverage of everything from macroeconomic events to investing strategies to our analyst's travels around the world to find the next big thing. Also free.

Get the book. Listen to a podcast. Sign up for Investor Insights. I'm not saying that any of those things will make you rich ... but Business Insider seems to think so.

Compare Brokers