It isn't easy to invest in a low rate environment. While strong companies can often report impressive earnings and show solid growth in a weak economy, not all companies and industries benefit equally from a low rate environment .
Boeing has consistently been one of the best performing industrials over the last several years. Even though Companies on shorter-term business cycles such as Caterpillar (CAT) and engine maker Cummins (CMI), have seen these companies earnings fluctuate significantly, industrial companies on long-term contracts such as GE (GE) and Boeing (BA) have fairly consistently beat earnings estimates since 2010.
Boeing has outperformed most industrial stocks by a wide margin since 2010, and the company's earnings have held up very well in the current weak economic environment.
Still, despite Boeing's strong performance over the last several years, the stock has consistently underperformed most of the broader indexes by a wide margin over the last six months.
I wrote several months ago that Boeing was a sell because demand for new aircraft was at unsustainable levels. While all traders have good calls and bad ones, Boeing as underperformed the S&P 500 and most of the broader indexes by a significant margin since early March.
Boeing has had significant challenges bringing the companies new Dreamliner to market over the last decade, and the companies ability to finally bring the Dreamliner to market has enabled management to increase earnings and improve the company's reputation at the right time.
Boeing trades at nearly 13x average estimates of next years likely earnings, and the analysts are projecting high single digit growth over the next five years. The companies operating margins of around 9% are average for an S&P 500 company.
Still, there are strong signs that Boeing's earnings and profitability are likely topping out.
Boeing uses far fewer industrial metals, such as aluminum, in the company's latest-model planes, such as the Dreamliner. The companies operating costs are less tied to commodities such as aluminum than in the past. However, Boeing still uses aluminum and other metals in many of the companies planes, and aluminum and other industrial and bulk metals are currently trading at historically low levels.
Boeing benefits from high oil prices, since the companies new planes, such as the Dreamliner and latest 737 models, are significantly lighter planes that offer significant fuel savings of nearly 20% over many older models.
This is one of the reasons why I think Boeing's earnings are likely topping out. While Boeing's Dreamliner project and other product development efforts have met significant challenges over the past couple years, the company was able to finally bring its most important projects to market at the perfect time. As oil prices remained high, rates were historically low, and many major industrial and bulk metals were the cheapest these commodities had been at in years, the operating environment for Boeing is ideal.
Most major new plane purchases are financed with airline leasing companies today. Even in the weak current economic environment, banks have been aggressively willing to finance significant new airline purchases. Most leasing rates are also tied to libor rates, and are also at historically low levels.
This is why I thought the comments made earlier in the years by executives in the airline industry were so important. The Chief Executive officer of Aercap (AER) recently warned of a huge glut of planes coming onto the market, and also warned that some the biggest buyers of new aircraft, smaller companies in countries such as India and China, suggested that current demand was unsustainable. Several airlines in India, some of which were able to recently finance significant new orders, are near bankruptcy as well.
Energy prices have fallen nearly 30% since early March, and major airlines, such as Southwest Airlines (LUV), have deferred significant recent orders to cut costs. Many companies in the business of recycling old planes are also seen business boom, with even newer model planes being scrapped since companies can order the latest planes at historically low rates.
To conclude, while many companies have benefited from weak rates, few industries have benefited more from low rates than the airlines. With leasing rates tied to libor and banks increasingly willing to finance aggressive new purchases with fuel prices high and the economy still weak, companies such as Boeing and Airbus are likely seeing the strongest orders these companies will see for years. While Boeing recent earnings report was strong and the companies backlog is impressive, past results are not always the best predictor of future performance.