Fund managers gird for long trade war after FedEx slide

September 20, 2019 7:14 AM

By David Randall

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A profit warning and muted outlook from package delivery company FedEx Corp (NYSE: FDX) is prompting some high-profile fund managers to prepare for the trade war between the United States and China to last longer than many had originally anticipated.

Shares of the shipping company, whose business is often seen as a proxy for growth in the global economy, tumbled 13% Wednesday, a day after it said it planned to ground some planes and cut costs due to the effects of the trade war between the world's two largest economies.

"We were hopeful of a trade deal and some sort of return to normalcy and that has not taken place," FedEx's chief executive, Frederick Smith, said on its earnings call.

Companies ranging from parts supplier O'Reilly Automotive (NASDAQ: ORLY) to network gear maker Juniper Networks (NYSE: JNPR) have said the trade war is weighing on their earnings. Yet investors have focused more on FedEx because the nature of its business touches several industries across the globe, including consumer spending.

An extended trade war could take the wind out of the sails of the rally in the S&P 500 benchmark index, which has advanced in line with expectations for an imminent breakthrough in the trade war. High-level talks between the two countries are expected to resume again in October. The conflict between the two countries could take a decade to resolve, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow warned on Sept. 6.

As a result, fund managers are moving away from U.S. industrials and technology companies that may be most affected by higher tariffs and instead are looking to pick up some out-of-favor companies and assets that offer long-term opportunities despite the trade war.

"It's obvious that China will try to drag this out as long as it can and hope it disappears after the (2020 presidential) election," said Brian Yacktman, whose YCG Enhanced Fund is up nearly 31% for the year to date.

Yacktman is moving more into the shares of European luxury goods makers such as Kering SA , whose brands include Gucci and Botegga Veneta, that have pricing power but have fallen on concerns about a slowdown in the Chinese economy. Shares of Kering are up 12.4% for the year to date, including a 10% drop over the last three months.

"These are companies that can just pass tariffs on because people want to buy the status symbol," he said.

Emily Roland, co-chief investment strategist at John Hancock Investment Management, said her firm has been increasing its "measures of protection" against an economic downturn caused in part by an escalating trade war. Despite a 20.1% gain in the sector this year, she said she still sees opportunities in utilities companies due in part to their above-average dividend yields and growth potential.

"Rather than reacting and getting whipsawed by the sudden shifts in sentiment, we believe that investors can create diversified portfolios that seek to minimize downside risks from the trade war, however long it may last," she said.

Not all fund managers are convinced the trade war is here to stay. "We still think one way or another Trump will end it before the election," said Lamar Villere, a portfolio manager at New Orleans-based Villere & Co.

As a result, he has been moving more assets into sectors such as semiconductors, an industry which will be included in $50 billion worth of goods that will be subject to 30% tariffs starting Oct. 1.

"The market is giving you opportunities because we think that this is more of a blip than anything else," he said.

Emmanuel Roman, chief executive officer at bond giant Pimco, said Thursday at the CNBC Institutional Investor Delivering Alpha Conference that he is seeing opportunities in emerging market bonds due to the pessimism from the trade war.

"Obviously the big elephant in the room is the trade war with China and how it will resolve itself," he said.

(Reporting by David Randall; Editing by Alden Bentley and Leslie Adler)

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