Every day, Wall Street analysts upgrade some stocks, downgrade others, and "initiate coverage" on a few more. But do these analysts even know what they're talking about? Today, we're taking one high-profile Wall Street pick and putting it under the microscope...
Boeing (NYSE: BA) stock has been in free fall for nearly a month -- ever since it was learned that a Boeing 737 MAX 8 operated by Ethiopian Airlines had crashed in a manner similar to last year's crash of another Boeing 737 MAX 8 operated by Lion Air in Indonesia.
Fearing there is something intrinsically wrong with the plane -- perhaps a defect in its MCAS software controlling automated responses to sensor readings indicating a potential stall -- air safety regulators around the globe have banned flight operations of the 737 MAX 8, raising the risk that Boeing will suffer lawsuits, and prompting at least one airline to cancel its 737 MAX 8 orders outright.
On Monday, the downturn got even worse. On the first trading day following Boeing's Friday announcement that flight bans and order cancellations will necessitate production cuts, multiple Wall Street analysts cut their price targets on Boeing. Two analysts in particular went even farther and downgraded Boeing stock.
What Boeing said
On Friday, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg released a statement addressing "the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 preliminary report."
Explicitly linking the "lives lost" aboard Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, and acknowledging the "immense gravity" of the crisis Boeing faces, Muilenburg promised to "own" the problem and assured investors that "we know how to" fix what needs fixing. In the meantime, however, Boeing explained that in response to "temporarily" decreased demand for the aircraft, it is slashing its production rate by 19%, from 52 planes per month to 42 -- and postponing a planned increase to 57 planes per month.
Who's cutting Boeing price targets?
In response to Boeing's move, analysts at Baird said they "now assume no 737-MAX deliveries in 2Q19" and see total 2019 deliveries as "significantly reduced." This will hurt both earnings and free cash flow at Boeing in the near term, the analyst said, as reported yesterday by StreetInsider.com.
Analysts at Wolfe Research echoed Baird's prediction of reduced earnings and FCF, lowering their price target by $1 to $436 per share.
Cowen & Co., while commending Boeing for its decision to slow production, nonetheless cut its price target by $15 to $460. "BA won't deliver its MCAS fix to the FAA until late April," warned Cowen, "and the FAA will have to test the fix before approving it and lifting the grounding." Furthermore, foreign regulators may take longer than the FAA to approve Boeing's fix, with the result that "foreign deliveries may not resume until Q3 or possibly Q4."
Who's downgrading Boeing stock?
Other analysts were even more downbeat. At Alembic Global Advisors, Boeing's move earned it a downgrade to neutral. Meanwhile, Merrill Lynch assigned the same rating, and cut its price target by $60 to $420.
Merrill warned that with the 737 MAX 8 software fix taking longer to implement than initially promised, Boeing's production lines could face six to nine months of disruption, depriving Boeing of crucial sales of one of its most profitable planes, which accounts for 40% of the company's earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT).
What should investors do now?
Well, assuming Boeing gets its MCAS fixed, 737 MAX 8 aircraft delayed today should still be 737 MAX 8 aircraft that get sold...eventually.
As Cowen points out, tweaking MCAS so that it doesn't crash any more planes is actually a "very fixable" problem -- it basically works out to a software patch. And once the problem has been fixed, Boeing should benefit from a lot of pent-up demand for the aircraft. Analysts on average predict the company will sell enough planes to enjoy $16.7 billion in free cash flow next year, up 21% from last year's tally. Cowen says that, in its estimation, FCF could go even higher next year -- perhaps as much as $17 billion.
If that's the way things play out, Boeing at $211.4 billion market cap today (according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data) could be selling for as little as 12.4 times next year's free cash flow -- even cheaper than the 15.5 times FCF that Boeing shares cost today. For a stock paying a 2.1% dividend yield and expected to grow at 11.5%, 12.4 times FCF looks like a nice price.
That's why I'm siding against the analysts -- and with Boeing -- despite the wave of negative sentiment that seems to be sweeping Wall Street. Down 15% from its highs hit early last month, Boeing is still a buy.
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