A Backdoor Play On The E-commerce Boom

If you're like most people, then you have probably received a box (or several) on your front door this month courtesy of Amazon Prime's free two-day shipping. Or perhaps it was sent by Wal-Mart or another online retailer.

Wherever the source, there are countless packages whizzing from warehouse to doorstep during the Christmas shopping season. It has been estimated that FedEx (NYSE: FDX) made 510 million deliveries between Black Friday and New Year's Eve. The firm's hectic Memphis hub processes 2 million packages per day during the peak holiday season – about 500,000 per hour.

Keep in mind, FedEx and Amazon have a testy relationship at best. Otherwise, that number would be even higher. The e-commerce king does quite a bit of shipping on its own and is becoming a real threat in that regard. Amazon even dictates how the 5 million independent third-party sellers on its website can and can't fulfill their orders.

According to Business Insider, Amazon employs 75,000 private courier drivers who will deliver 3.5 billion packages this year. For context, UPS (NYSE: UPS) drops off 5.2 billion parcels annually. UPS estimates it will deliver 32 million packages per day globally this holiday season – a 50% surge from normal daily volume.

Ironically, yesterday (Jan. 2) was probably one of the busiest days – when an estimated 1.9 million items were returned to vendors.

Let's not forget about the U.S. Postal Service, which estimates 800 million deliveries this holiday season. USPS deliveries will peak at 28 million per day between December 16 and 21.

The point is these shippers continue to set new records with each passing year. UPS alone hired 100,000 seasonal workers to keep up with demand. You'd think all of this would translate into nice returns for stockholders. 

But that hasn't necessarily been the case. There is tremendous pressure to meet deadlines and maintain strong on-time performance. And that can be costly. The integrated freight and logistics sector has delivered meager annual returns of 3.5% over the past year. And FedEx shares had a rather uninspiring 2019, losing nearly 5% in a historic year for the overall market.

A Better Way To Profit

Don't get me wrong, these are well-run businesses with the potential to deliver huge cash flow at times. But there might be a better way to profit from the e-commerce boom – one that doesn't require a fleet of cargo jets and delivery trucks.
I'm talking about manufacturers of corrugated shipping boxes. Most of the kitchen appliances, sporting goods, electronics, and other stuff you buy arrive in sturdy boxes – generating about $20 billion in annual sales for box makers.

Heavy industry consolidation over the past decade has concentrated market share among a smaller group, easing competitive pressures. And that is reflected in strong returns on invested capital (ROIC), which stand in the mid-teens for some of the better-run outfits.

Packaging Corp of America (NYSE: PKG) has the strongest volume growth, profit margins, and returns on capital in the industry. With eight containerboard mills producing raw materials for 100 corrugated box production facilities, the firm ships 59 billion square feet of corrugated boxes per year – enough output to blanket Yankee Stadium about 45,000 times.

While pricing pressures bit into the bottom line somewhat last quarter, the company still churned out record box shipments. It's generated $1.1 billion in cash flow for the year – supporting an above-average dividend yield of nearly 3%.

Action to Take 

I first recommended PKG a little over a year ago in my Daily Paycheck service. And the stock has given us a gain of nearly 20% since then – touching a 52-week high recently.

Scheduled maintenance outages and lower export prices could weigh on earnings next quarter, but the stock remains a long-term "Buy" and great back-door play on e-commerce.

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