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Friday Five: Russia Woes Contained for Now

Jason Stipp
Jeremy Glaser

Jason Stipp: I'm Jason Stipp for Morningstar and welcome to The Friday Five, Morningstar's take on five stories in the market this week. Joining me with The Friday Five is Morningstar markets editor Jeremy Glaser.

Jeremy, thanks for being here.

Jeremy Glaser: You're welcome, Jason.

Stipp: Up first this week: Russia was in focus in a big way; they've had tough couple of months capped off by a really tough week this week.

Glaser: It has been a tough time for Russia, precipitated by this halving in oil prices. The Russian economy is very exposed to oil; as that price goes down, they see themselves getting into trouble very quickly. You add in some of the sanctions and other problems, and you see how these issues are mounting.

This week we saw the ruble almost in free-fall, after the Central Bank had tried to stem the tide by raising rates from 10% to 17%; it didn't work. The ruble hit an all-time low against the dollar at one point before bouncing back somewhat. They seem to have stabilized the currency through selling of foreign-exchange reserves, but it's still a very much a country and an economy under pressure.

For most investors, the real question is, is this contained? Is this a Russia-specific issue, or are we going to see these kind of issues like in 1998, spread to other emerging markets? Right now there are no signs that's happening; it does seem to be contained. We talked to Bob Johnson about it this week; he doesn't see it as a major systemic threat, but obviously it's one we are going to follow very closely.

Stipp: Back here at home, the Fed soothed a lot of worries this week by saying one word: "patient."

Glaser: They did, there was some discussion that maybe the Fed was going to act sooner rather than later in terms of raising interest rates, after we had some strong jobs reports, and after it seemed like there is a lot of different signs to the U.S. economy is in fact accelerating.

Janet Yellen and the rest of the FOMC said very firmly said that that wasn't the case this week in their statement. They said that they are going to remain patient before they raise rates, and they don't see that as very different than saying they were going to hold rates low for a considerable time. In the press conference, Yellen clarified that that probably means two meetings, which pushes us out to April the very earliest for a rate increase. It could past that.

It sounds like they just want to make people aware that rates very well could rise in the middle of next year; that's what most people expect to happen. But the idea of a surprise early rise seems like it's pretty much off the table, and the market very much cheered that news.

Stipp: We got CPI data this week, and inflation still remains very low.

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Glaser: This is a continuation of a trend, but I wanted to pull it out this week, because it was such a big decrease, 0.3% in November--the biggest increase we have seen since the height of the recession. Also, it shows the kind of latitude the Fed does have to be patient.

In terms of the drop that we had this month, it was driven by energy prices--no surprise there when you look at price of oil. That may be a transitory; the Fed thinks it is. But when you look at the core prices, which excludes food and energy, which are much more volatile, it was only up 0.1% from the previous month. Year-over-year we are looking at the 1.3% inflation in the total number, 1.7% in the core. It's very much under control and under that 2% target that the Fed is looking at.

With inflation not running too high, the Fed really does have the ability to maybe keep rates a little bit lower. They don't have to raise rates right away in order to keep inflation in check, and maybe when they do start to raise rates, they can be a cautious in not raising them too far, too fast, because you don't have these inflationary pressures.

On the flipside of that, maybe we start to worry that inflation is getting too low. There are no signs that the United States is worrying about deflation in the same way that Europe is. But that will be something that the Federal Reserve will be keeping an eye on as well.

Stipp: FedEx reported quarterly results this week that were disappointing. What was driving that, and what does our analyst have to say?

Glaser: The market was initially disappointed by FedEx results, and there really were a few years in the quarter. The first is that they haven't really seen the benefit of lower oil prices yet. They buy oil through contracts, not on the spot market, so it takes a while for those low prices to flow in. It will be a benefit later; we just haven't seen it yet. They have some aircraft maintenance issues that cost quite a bit of money in the quarter, and also there are some issues with the West Coast ports taking a long time to unload some freighters, which is really making it difficult for retailers to get supplies, which hurts FedEx eventually.

But Keith Schoonmaker, our FedEx analyst, thinks that these are more transitory issues. When you look at the core business, you look at the initiative they are doing to increase profitability, you still see that working and you still see volumes looking pretty good.

FedEx also announced this week that they are buying 3PL GENCO, a logistics company that helps with returns and other issues. This is an asset-light business, the kind that FedEx is expanding their footprint in. That will also help their profitability, help get packages into their stream, which is probably good for shareholders and good for FedEx over the long term.

Stipp: On the flipside, Oracle reported good results. What was driving Oracle results, and does the stock look attractive on that news?

Glaser: Oracle's wide moat was driving those results. Their software has very, very high switching costs, and we saw again this quarter that they are able to keep selling more software. They had good sales of sales support and also the software itself. Their cloud product grew very, very quickly, but off of a relatively low base, so it's not a huge driver of the firm yet, but they do see the cloud as potential threat, and are moving in there.

Rick Summer, our Oracle analyst, thinks that the firm's wide moat is going to be able to survive this transition into a cloud environment, even if the rollout ends up being a little bit bumpy. Particularly given that the shares rallied after the report, they don't look like are a great bargain. They are in the 3-star territory. But if there were to be a sell-off, it could be something interesting. Just not at these prices.

Stipp: Good perspective and insights on the market this week, Jeremy. Thanks for joining me.

Glaser: Thanks, Jason.

Stipp: For Morningstar, I'm Jason Stipp. Thanks for watching.