4 Trucking Stocks That Will Keep Rolling
Next year won't be perfect, but two trends -- a pickup in manufacturing and lean inventories at retailers -- offer promise for the right stocks.

The trucking industry accelerated in November, with freight tonnage rising by 0.3% — that’s a full 6% higher than November 2010 and the largest year-over-year gain since June, the American Trucking Associations said on Wednesday.

“Tonnage levels continue to point to an economy that is growing, not sliding into a recession,” ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello said. “Over the last three months, tonnage is up 2.3% and stands at the highest level since January of this year.”

Two key factors are behind the tonnage growth: rising manufacturing output and leaner retail inventories. With an uptick in manufacturing, the sheer volume of truck freight has been increasing. And as retailers sell existing inventory, the need to replenish stock has kept trucks busy.

Despite the rebound in its fortunes, the industry faces headwinds going into 2012. Foremost among them is a new set of federal rules that would limit the amount of time truck drivers can work. The Federal Motor carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) could publish its so-called Hours of Service (HOS) regulations as early as Thursday. The trucking industry, which says implementing the rules could cost more than $1 billion, has vowed to sue if the final version is too restrictive.

The HOS regulations aim to reduce crash-related deaths and injuries by trimming truckers’ maximum daily driving time from the current 11 hours to 10 and total on-duty time from the current 14 hours to 13. The industry maintains that the new rules would result in higher costs for trucking companies and delayed shipments, and that could trigger a slump in motor carrier freight loads.

Another challenge: hiring enough drivers. With unemployment starting to ease slightly, the trucking industry will need to hire 135,000 new drivers by the end of the first quarter 2012, industry sources say. Also, any prolonged increase in fuel prices or U.S. economic fallout from Europe’s ongoing debt fiasco obviously would have a major impact on the trucking industry.

Since most trucking stocks have bounced back from their battered recession-era levels, it’s a lot harder to find a bargain now than it was earlier this year. Still, trucking capacity is very tight currently — and that gives companies the power to boost rates and fatten margins. While no longer cheap, truck stocks with strong fundamentals continue to offer value. Here are four that still have some gas in the tank for 2012:

C.H. Robinson (NASDAQ:CHRW) is actually more of a third-party logistics company that provides multimodal freight transport through its contracts with motor carriers, railroads and others. With a market cap of $11.2 billion, CHRW has a price-earnings-to-growth (PEG) ratio of 1.7, indicating that the stock is overvalued (with 1.0 considered fair value). At $68.23, the stock is trading about 9% above its 52-week low in August, and its one-year return is –13%. Still, it has a current dividend yield of 1.75%, and its multi-carrier focus positions it well for rail and intermodal growth opportunities.

J.B. Hunt (NASDAQ:JBHT) provides full truckload, intermodal and logistics services in the U.S., Canada and Mexico — which is a plus because those first two markets are forecast to shift into higher gear in 2012. With a market cap of $5.2 billion, JBHT has a PEG ratio of about 1.2, meaning the stock is slightly overvalued. At $44.64, JBHT is trading nearly 30% above its 52-week low in September, and its one-year return is 12%. The stock has a current dividend yield of 1.2%.

Old Dominion Freight Line (NASDAQ:ODFL) is a family-run, less-than-truckload (LTL) carrier that operates mostly in the U.S. It provides regional, inter-regional and national services, as well as logistics, supply chain management and freight consulting services. With a market cap of $2.3 billion, ODFL has a PEG ratio of 1.3, indicating the stock is slightly overvalued. At $40.45, the stock is trading nearly 48% above its 52-week low in October and its one-year return is nearly 28%.

Con-Way (NYSE:CNW), a provider of less-than-truckload (LTL) and full truckload services, has a market cap of $1.6 billion and a PEG ratio of 0.62, which means the stock is very undervalued. At $29, CNW is trading nearly 41% above its 52-week low in October. Although its one-year return is –18%, the company’s fundamentals are strong, and it’s likely to benefit from volume and margin growth in 2012. The stock has a current dividend yield of 1.4%.

As of this writing, Susan J. Aluise did not hold a position in any of the stocks mentioned here.

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