Industrials

Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

As Boeing Co.'s shares soar higher, the ranks of analysts who have a more earthbound outlook on the stock is growing.

On Monday, Richard Safran of Buckingham Research became at least the third analyst covering the jumbo-jet maker to say the stock is more likely to fall than continue its climb. A trio doesn't sound all that notable, but the percentage of Boeing's analyst universe with the equivalent of a "sell" outlook hasn’t been this large since 2010, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Goldman Sachs Group Inc.'s Noah Poponak was the only publicly listed analyst tracked by Bloomberg with a bearish-leaning call for nearly a year before RBC's Matthew McConnell initiated coverage with an underperform rating in January.

Walking a Tightrope
Boeing analysts' average price target still exceeds the current price, but the gap is narrowing. The three with bearish ratings have an average price target of $134, which would represent a 20 percent decline.
Source: Bloomberg

A larger number of analysts aren't willing to commit to a sell call, but they also don't see reason for Boeing's stock to go higher after a 55 percent gain over the past year. The number of "hold" and "sell" calls now outranks "buy" recommendations.

You'd think that shifting sentiment might be enough to give investors' pause. But while the stock dropped as much as 1.4 percent in pre-market trading on Monday, by the open it had recovered and actually ended up 1.1 percent on the day. Short interest in the stock ticked up slightly, but investors have generally been moving in the opposite direction of increasingly skeptical analysts over the past few months, showing less willingness to bet on Boeing shares going lower. 

Beating Back the Bears
Short interest as a percentage of free float is above the 10-year average, but has been trending downward after peaking last March
Source: Markit, Bloomberg

In some ways, you can see why: Boeing in December increased its quarterly dividend by 30 percent and replenished its share buyback capabilities. In January, the $104 billion planemaker said cash flow would rise this year after a record showing in 2016. The metric has been a key watch item in light of the costly rollout of the 787 Dreamliner and slowing sales. Should President Donald Trump go ahead with a tax plan that supports exporters, Boeing, which gets most of its revenue from outside the U.S., would be a clear beneficiary.

The Perks of Being a Shareholder
Even after the rally in Boeing shares, its dividend yield is among the most attractive in the industrial sector
Source: Bloomberg

At the same time, it'll be hard to maintain such a heady level of shareholder payouts in an investment-heavy industry. And while Buckingham analyst Safran says Boeing shouldn't have a problem meeting consensus free cash flow estimates this year, he's less convinced it will continue to find growth after that. Weak orders, pricing pressures and a slower pace of advances or progress payments will work against it.

McConnell of RBC points to the margin pressures that may arise as Boeing updates its 737 and 777 models. Redesigns aren't as risky as new aircraft, but they can still result in higher costs and supply chain foul-ups, just as demand and pricing power weakens for the older, more profitable models they're replacing. Take the 747-8 aircraft: Higher-than-expected costs and production issues tied to its upgrade resulted in delays and a $1 billion charge in 2009, McConnell notes.  

Then, of course, there are the risks that are out of Boeing's control and much harder to quantify. There's China, for one. What if it retaliates against any America First tax or trade policies by deciding its state-controlled airlines don't need as many Boeing jets? Or it could just opt to go local regardless of what happens on that front. Moreover, with the aerospace cycle already showing its age, it's riskier to bet everything is going to go swimmingly for Boeing and its rosy production rate targets.

As with a lot of industrial stocks, shareholders seem to be giving Boeing the benefit of the doubt. But maybe it's time to ask what analysts are seeing that investors are missing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Brooke Sutherland in New York at bsutherland7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Beth Williams at bewilliams@bloomberg.net