Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Hurricanes Blow Through U.S. Economy: Cars, Drugs, Phones, Food

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Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston. Irma blew all around Florida. Then Maria devastated Puerto Rico. In addition to the dozens killed by the storms and millions of lives uprooted, there were an array of effects on companies — much damage, but also many opportunities to get busy cleaning up, making repairs and trying to get life back to normal. The effects are still rippling through corporate earnings, as with Tuesday's reports from companies including Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Avis Budget Group Inc.

Autos

When Harvey hit Houston in late August, it stunted that month’s sales of new cars and trucks — what else would be expected when the seventh-biggest U.S. population center is shut down by rain by the foot?

As many as 1 million vehicles were damaged, eventually spurring some 600,000 additional sales, according to Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Cox Automotive, the owner of Kelley Blue Book, AutoTrader and Manheim auto auctions. The demand drove September to the fastest selling rate in 12 years, and October was strong as well. But because the industry was already carrying too much inventory, the surge’s main benefit for automakers was to lessen the need to idle factories or to deeply cut prices on remaining 2017 models.

Dealers lost business during the storms and faced clean-up costs that weren’t fully covered by insurance. AutoNation, based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said Irma reduced third-quarter operating income by about $8 million, making the difference between rising and falling profits. Asbury Automotive Group, another large chain, missed estimates by 3 cents a share after Harvey and Irma reduced earnings by 10 cents a share.

 

Retailers and Restaurants

The storms sent consumer spending on a roller coaster in hard-hit parts of Houston and Florida. When Irma struck South Florida the weekend of Sept. 8-10, purchases in Miami and Fort Lauderdale plunged more than 57 percent from a year earlier, First Data Corp. said.

Boca Raton, Florida-based Office Depot suffered an especially severe impact. The state is its No. 1 market, and the storms contributed to an 8.5 percent sales decline in the quarter.

Restaurant sales had already been suppressed this year, and September saw another month-over-month decrease.

 

Debris sits in piles outside homes flooded after Hurricane Harvey in Spring, Texas, on Sept. 6. Disaster is fueling a growth industry as more frequent and powerful storms lash coastal regions teeming with new homes and offices.
Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

But the storms did fuel spending on building materials as people started to rebuild damaged or lost homes. With more than 80 percent of the Standard & Poor’s 500 index companies reporting results so far, materials firms are beating analysts’ estimates by about 12 percent, the most of any group in data compiled by Bloomberg. 

Telecom

Harvey and Irma reduced Comcast Corp.’s earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization by $35 million last quarter and will do the same in the fourth. The biggest U.S. cable-TV provider issued bill credits to affected customers and hired extra repair workers. Despite the sharpest drop in subscribers in three years — partly blamed on the storms — Comcast beat estimates for third-quarter profit. AT&T Inc. said storms explained half of the 390,000 drop in conventional TV customers as it added online TV subscribers.

Entertainment and Travel

As if the trio of hurricanes wasn’t enough to deal with, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake also struck Mexico City in mid-September. Six Flags Entertainment Corp. not only lost days at Texas theme parks, its new water park in Mexico also had to close because of damage.

Cruise lines were able to shift their routes around the worst-hit areas. In late September, Carnival Corp. raised its full-year forecast. While current-quarter profit will take a hit, bookings for the first half of 2018 are running ahead of this year and at higher prices. Royal Caribbean is also seeing higher volumes of bookings and at higher rates, the Miami-based company said Tuesday. 

Investors who had been betting on increased demand for rental cars after the hurricanes were disappointed when Avis  said operational disruptions kept it from capitalizing on the opportunity. The company on Tuesday cut its full-year outlook and shares plunged. Theme-park operator SeaWorld Entertainment Inc., already struggling to overcome public criticism from animal activists, said Hurricane Irma added to the quarter's woes

Health Care

Drugmakers and medical equipment manufacturers account for about a quarter of Puerto Rico’s gross domestic product. Many companies shuttered plants after Maria devastated its infrastructure and electricity grid. Diabetes-pump maker Medtronic Plc, which has four major locations on the island, said Oct. 6 that quarterly revenue and earnings would both be hurt by $250 million.

Shortages of drugs and medical equipment appear to be rare, though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said it’s closely tracking supplies such as saline. 

Big for-profit hospital chains were also hurt as storms kept patients from visiting. Community Health Systems Inc. said it missed out on $40 million in lost operating revenue in the third quarter; HCA Healthcare Inc. said it lost $140 million in revenue; Tenet Healthcare Corp. said it had $30 million in extra expenses and $10 million in lost revenue.

Economic Impact

The economic fallout from the hurricanes has been mixed: Any economic drag from damage in Texas and Florida will likely give way as activity rebounds amid rebuilding efforts.

Consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the economy, added a greater than predicted 1.6 percentage points to third-quarter growth as storm victims replaced damaged cars. Even so, services spending slowed to the weakest pace since 2013, and the effects of Harvey and Irma on so-called final demand showed up in weaker outlays for oil and gas well-drilling equipment and less home construction.

 

A "no gas" sign is placed on a fuel dispenser ahead of Hurricane Irma at a gas station in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Sept. 8. 
Photographer: Christina Mendenhall/Bloomberg

U.S. retail sales jumped in September by the most in more than two years, boosted by motor vehicle replacements and higher prices for gasoline. Total sales jumped 1.6 percent from August and spending at service stations increased 5.8 percent, the most since February 2013.

The job market has bounced back from an initial slump in payrolls. September’s initially reported drop was revised to an increase of 18,000 on Nov. 3, and followed by an October gain of 261,000. The unemployment rate fell to 4.1 percent, the lowest level since 2000.

Real Estate

Harvey and Irma caused as much as $113.5 billion in flood and wind damage, including up to $57 billion for uninsured homes, real-estate researcher CoreLogic Inc. estimates. Harvey’s residential flood damage to 70 counties in Texas and Louisiana was as much as $37 billion, with about 70 percent uninsured. Irma’s residential toll was as much as $38 billion in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, with some 80 percent uninsured. Wind damage to homes, which typically is covered by private insurers, was estimated as high as $15 billion from Irma and $2 billion from Harvey.

Insurers were hit hard. Billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. saw earnings dragged down by almost $2 billion from the storms, putting the conglomerate on track for its first annual underwriting loss since 2002. Insurers missed quarterly earnings estimates by about 12 percent, the most among financial groups in data compiled by Bloomberg.

Gas and Oil

Drillers including EOG Resources Inc., ConocoPhillips and Apache Corp. curtailed production during the storms, with Iberia Capital Partners estimating that most decreases amounted to less than 2 percent of company output.

Harvey also shuttered almost a quarter of U.S. refining capacity, sending gasoline prices surging. The outages also boosted crack spreads — a rough measure of profit from processing crude into fuel — to a two-year high. As plants recovered, they were poised to take advantage of higher margins.

Harvey tore a path through the heart of U.S. petrochemical production, shutting dozens of plants along the Texas Gulf Coast for weeks. While lost production erodes third-quarter sales at many companies, resulting higher prices may help in the fourth quarter. Paint-makers Axalta Coatings Systems and PPG Industries Inc. reported reduced sales and tightened raw-material markets. Westlake Chemical Corp. is poised to benefit: Harvey missed the company’s plants, and competitors’ outages should lead to shortages and higher prices.

Airlines

Airlines cancelled more than 33,000 flights related to the three hurricanes. United Continental Holdings Inc. was hit especially hard because of its huge hub in Houston, which shut down for several days during Harvey. United canceled about 8,300 flights during the storms, reduced third-quarter pretax income by $185 million.

JetBlue, the top U.S. carrier to Puerto Rico, canceled more than 2,500 flights, net of 550 extra flights added to get people out before and after the storms and to ferry supplies into the affected areas. JetBlue’s operations were disrupted for more than 30 consecutive days, potentially reducing full-year revenue by $134 million and operating income by $105 million.

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