U.S. Economic Expansion

Revenues among the leading airline groups rose more than 10% last year and operating profits remain at historic highs. The economic indicators that make up the Conference Board Leading Economic Index were up .2% in May suggesting we may be approaching a ‘late growth stage’ of the current cycle. Most U.S. economic expansions have lasted more than three years, while recessions typically no more than 18 months. The current expansion started in June 2009 and will become the longest on record in July 2019 based on National Bureau of Economic Research figures that go back to the 1850s.

Growth in Aviation

The Aviation business continues to enjoy global traffic growth with 7% growth in RPK this year (well above the 20-year average of 5.5%) and cargo growth of 4%. We are in an expansionary period. But headwinds have begun to appear as inflation is near the Fed’s 2% target (expect a continued and gradual rising interest rate environment). Tariffs and trade negotiations are generating turbulence. The Asian markets are significant (Boeing has said China will need 5,730 single-aisle planes during the next two decades). Labor pressures, rising interest rates and jet fuel price volatility are all squeezing operating margins. And, on the horizon is a looming pilot shortage.

As we approach late stage growth in the current business cycle, industry operations have stabilized amid continuing strong passenger demand and the unbundling of ancillary ‘service’ revenues. Both have allowed carriers to cover climbing unit cost.

Aircraft Investment

In this environment investing in aircraft is a good business, even when financing aircraft to less than stellar credits, and even if we’re headed into what appears to be risky jurisdictions. Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway manages a $200 Billion portfolio; he returned to investing in the aviation industry in 2016. Recently he has been increasing his investment in SWA and Delta, operators that have the best return on invested capital. Return on invested capital (profit margins multiplied by asset turns) measures how efficiently aircraft are used. While ROA is not the same as returns to shareholder/owners due to factors such as debt, accounting policies and taxes, operators who produce a good return on assets create value. Southwest is a good example. By flying just one type of aircraft (737s), built by a single manufacturer (Boeing), they control pilot and mechanic training and cut down overall cost.

With solid U.S. growth, few economists expect a recession in the near term. Interest rates remain low and inflation is just now touching the Fed’s 2% target. As fuel, labor, and interest rates rise, IATA is forecasting profits of the world’s biggest airlines will dip. Despite cost pressures, the airlines’ return on invested capital will top their cost of capital for the fourth consecutive year. Markets are global and a focus on network planning and efficient aircraft utilization is key.

Historic high returns (over 9% annually) and low volatility. Understand aviation investment’s key performance drivers. Want answers? Call RESIDCO.

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