Earnings reports from FedEx (NYSE:FDX) are always closely watched. The company's scale and its integral role in the economy make it an important bellwether. And its results usually have something to say about the general state of the economy.

Overall, its latest report seems to corroborate a view of a slow (but steady) economic recovery in the United States. The company delivered a healthy beat on both the top and the bottom lines, seemingly outpacing rival United Parcel Service (NYSE:UPS).

Cheaper options still popular
Earnings growth looked healthy; fourth-quarter earnings per share of $2.46 easily beat the $2.36 consensus and rose nearly 11% year over year. Revenue also showed some fairly healthy gains, rising 3.5% to hit $11.8 billion, exceeding calls for $11.66 billion. For the full year, the company's EPS grew by 8.3%, and revenue rose 2.9%, indicating it has been doing a good job of increasing margins in the face of middling revenue growth.

FedEx's last quarterly report showed that cheaper options such as ground shipping were growing considerably faster than the more expensive Express segment, which caused some to worry about the state of the U.S. consumer. This trend still seems to be ongoing.

As a result of growth in e-commerce, ground shipping revenue grew by 8%, compared to flat growth in the company's Express segment, which accounts for more than half of its overall business. As a result, the Express business has been undergoing some changes, such as slashing less profitable air shipping routes.

A similar trend is visible in United Parcel Service's results. In its last report, UPS saw a 2.6% growth in revenue for its U.S. domestic segment, led by its UPS SurePost and Second Day Air services. Both of these cater to more value-conscious consumers and have seen strong demand from e-commerce companies. While it is encouraging that people are ordering more products from the Internet, the preference for cheaper options gives a mixed message.

The big picture
As usual, analysts have scrutinized FedEx's results for clues as to the state of the U.S. and global economy and found that the company had some positive things to say about U.S. GDP growth. According to FedEx, the U.S. economy should grow by around 2.2% this calendar year, which is lower than previous forecasts due to the weather, but higher than the 2% projected by the International Monetary Fund. Things are expected to improve in 2015, during which the company expects the U.S. GDP to grow by 3.1%.

Going forward, the company's outlook is stable. Its 2015 EPS is expected to be between $8.50 and $9 versus a $8.76 consensus. One thing that could boost the top line is the company's decision to start charging based on box sizes in addition to weight, a move that was also announced by UPS. This new pricing model is supposed to increase efficiency by wasting less space in ground transport, and should benefit both companies.

The Foolish takeaway
FedEx's most recent results surprised the Street. This is viewed as a positive sign for the global economy, due to the company's scale. However, strength in the company's cheaper shipping options, confirmed by UPS, leads some to question how much money consumers have to spend. Nevertheless, FedEx seems bullish on the U.S. economy in 2014 and 2015.