In the information age, a maker of hulking machines has lavished investors with gains.
Boeing stock (BA) has returned 894% cumulatively over the past decade, when reinvested dividends are included. That’s 272 points better than search giant Alphabet (GOOGL).
Yet the jet maker now appears cheap, based on its earnings and free cash flow. Its shares trade at 17 times next year’s projected earnings. Consider that a New York utility, Consolidated Edison (ED), is slightly more popular, at 18 times next year’s earnings. Electricity isn’t much of a growth market, while air travel is booming.
One of the things investors like about regulated utilities, of course, is the stability. Economically sensitive companies like Boeing on the other hand come with uncertainty. Worries about global trade, including a tariff showdown between the U.S. and China, have weighed on Boeing’s shares of late. Boeing is the single largest American exporter to China, which took in $16 billion worth of aircraft orders from the U.S. last year.
But there may be less uncertainty than investors think.
Start with the competitive landscape. There are only two major players in the market for wide-body jets. Airbus (AIR.France), a European consortium, is the other. China wants to make a narrow body competitor to the Boeing 737—the Comac C919—and plans to ramp production after 2021. But the Comac C919 was introduced a decade ago and has had a string of production slips. The current target “may be optimistic given 919’s prior miscues and apparent inability to meet FAA flight deck standards,” wrote Cowen analyst Cai von Rumohr in a recent note to investors. “Furthermore, it’s also unlikely that Comac will have the expertise to support its aircraft effectively for at least several years after deliveries begin.”
Now consider the order book. Boeing has a backlog of 5,881 planes on order. This year, it will deliver perhaps around 800 planes, rising to 900 by 2021. Many years’ worth of orders isn’t the same as guaranteed income, but the supply and demand bode well. Airline traffic has recently been growing 5.5% a year, versus expected airline capacity growth of 5%.
So there’s reason to believe that Boeing deserves a higher price based on its earnings, but earnings actually understate the case. Commercial jets have long sales lives; the earliest version of the 737 came out in 1968. Boeing spends frightful sums each time it develops a new platform, with the aim of recouping that money and much more over many years.
For purposes of reporting earnings, the company tries to match its costs with its revenues by assuming those costs are paid little by little each year, even if they’re really paid in lump sums. That can result in earnings vastly overstating or understating actual cash coming in for long stretches. This year, Boeing is expected to post about $15 a share in earnings while bringing in closer to $23 a share in free cash. Gradually, the two figures should converge, while growing. Free cash flow could hit $35 a share by 2021.
The upshot is that Boeing appears to trade at a slight premium to the S&P 500 based on the near-term earnings forecast, but based on free cash flow, it is really 30% cheaper. And free cash, not paper earnings, are the wellspring of things like dividend increases, stock buybacks and new growth investments. That’s why Cowen’s von Rumohr calls Boeing a top pick with a price target of $445 a share, implying 40% upside, plus the dividend yield, recently 2.2%.
Boeing’s stock price topped $390 in early October, but has fallen more than 10% so far this month, closing on Tuesday at $318.09. The decline can be attributed in part to the trade tensions—which may ease or become more pronounced following a meeting between President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping of China this weekend. But some recent events are also buffeting Boeing.
The low-cost Indonesian airline Lion Air suffered a crash on Oct. 29 that killed all 189 people on board. The plane was a new Boeing model, the 737 Max 8, and investigators are looking into whether an automated stall-prevention system introduced on the plane contributed to the crash.
How could this play out? Boeing’s battery problems in its 787 Dreamliner in 2013, two years after its launch may prove instructive. The result then was bad publicity and a brief grounding of the fleet by regulators and production stoppage by Boeing, but continued growth for the company.
Apart from being a plane maker, Boeing is a major defense contractor. A leading customer is Saudi Arabia, which has drawn outrage over the killing and dismemberment of a journalist and a brutal war in Yemen. Boeing’s revenue linked to the kingdom are believed to be less than 2% of total company revenues. Losing that revenue would trim profit growth. But it would also lift an ugly overhang that may have turned off some investors to Boeing stock.