Why Boeing's 737 Max Woes Are No Longer Its Top Concern

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Over the past year, Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) has lost half its value. Nearly two-thirds of that loss has come in the past month. That coincides roughly with the beginning of restrictions on travel in China as the country finally came to grips with the coronavirus outbreak that has since spread across the world.

That first wave of effects from the epidemic (the World Health Organization has so far resisted pressure to call the outbreak a pandemic) hit hardest in China, where factories were shut down to slow the spread of the disease.

The second wave of effects are hitting the travel and tourism industries hard, as stopping the spread of the virus depends on restricting both large gatherings of people and the movements of people from one place to another. Airports and airplanes are good examples of both kinds of restricted activities.

The International Air Travel Association (IATA) has projected that passenger revenues in 2020 could drop by $113 billion. In the United States and Canada, lost revenues were estimated to reach $21.1 billion, less than half the $49.7 billion loss projected for the portion of the Asia Pacific region that includes Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Southeast Asia. Boeing and Airbus usually sell a lot of planes in those regions.

Airlines have scrambled to adjust their schedules and capacity to the tumbling demand for travel. The carriers expect to get pummeled by the lack of passengers, and some already have responded by suspending forecasts, cutting services, eliminating change fees, freezing new hiring and, most important to Boeing and competitor Airbus, placing a hold on spending for big-ticket items like new airplanes. So far, investor returns haven’t been affected, but how long can that remain unchanged?

Big customers like Flydubai (251 Boeing 737 Max planes ordered) want Boeing to adjust pricing and delivery schedules. Delta Air Lines Co. (NYSE: DAL) and United Airlines Holdings Inc. (NASDAQ: UAL) are evaluating their need for more planes. A number of financially weaker airlines could fold if the epidemic is not controlled within the next month or so.

Boeing has not shipped a 737 Max to a customer in nearly a year since the plane’s grounding. In December, the company announced that it would halt production of the plane, with more than 400 already built and in storage awaiting regulatory approval to deliver to customers. The company has projected deliveries to begin by this summer, but that projection was made before the coronavirus was known to have spread outside China.

If Boeing can’t deliver airplanes, the company’s cash flow disappears. Making matters worse, it’s not just the single-aisle 737 Max that is suffering, Boeing’s wide-body 787 Dreamliner deliveries are being hampered by coronavirus-related travel restrictions.

According to a Bloomberg report, Boeing has already drawn $7.5 billion on a $13.8 billion borrowing the company completed in January. Had the coronavirus black swan not occurred, that likely would have seen Boeing through to the summer, when it expected to begin delivering the Max jets again.

While no one could have predicted the coronavirus outbreak and the grounding of the 737 Max, at least one aerospace analyst thinks Boeing’s biggest problem is Boeing itself. Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for Teal Group, believes the company made a fundamental error when it chose to revamp its older 737 planes (called NG, for next generation) rather than going with a clean-sheet design.

The Airbus A321neo is eating Boeing’s lunch in the midsize market. Of 673 orders in 2019 for midsize jets, 476 went to Airbus. The ratio of A321neo to 737 Max sales is about five to one.

The worse news for Boeing is that any attempt to win back sales in the midsize market means a new airplane. No more revisions to the 737 are possible, according to Aboulafia: “The MAX 9/10 and MAX 200 are clearly outclassed by the A321neo, and there is probably nothing that Boeing can do to make them more competitive.”

In the short term, there are a couple of other issues to keep in mind as the epidemic spreads. First, if there are airline failures, the availability of used planes goes up and demand for new airplanes goes down. Second, the crude oil price war also influences buy/no-buy decisions because as prices for jet fuel drop, the economics of flying older, less fuel-efficient planes get better.

Third, leaving aside Boeing’s 737 Max problems, Bloomberg noted that Airbus had manufacturing problems last year with its narrow-body jets, and both General Electric and Rolls Royce battled niggling engine problems all year. Had everything been running smoothly, the coronavirus could have had an even bigger impact on the aircraft makers and the airlines.

Boeing stock was down more than 10% just before noon Wednesday to $206.92, after posting a new 52-week low of $205.56 earlier. The 52-week high is $398.66 and the consensus price target is $341.16.

United Airlines stock traded down about 7.6%, at $48.57 in a 52-week range of $45.92 to $96.03. The consensus price target is $97.13.

Delta Air Lines shares had dropped 8% to trade at $41.83. The 52-week range is $41.46 to $63.44, and the price target is $66.63.

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