Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Boeing earned a profit for the first time in nearly two years, surprising Wall Street and hinting at a potential turnaround after one of the worst financial crises in the plane-maker’s century-long history. The shares jumped.

Adjusted earnings of 40c a share weren’t the only sign of progress in the company’s second-quarter earnings report: the manufacturer burnt through just $705m, better than the $2.76bn outflow that analysts had predicted.

Wednesday’s results suggest that Boeing is starting to emerge from a deep slump caused by the Covid-19 outbreak and the company’s own quality lapses, which were tied to two deadly crashes of its best-selling 737 Max plane. With its business stabilising, Boeing has halted large-scale job cuts well short of earlier plans to eliminate nearly 20% of its rolls, said CEO Dave Calhoun.

“You will see our efforts gaining traction and our recovery accelerating, as reflected in improved revenue, earnings and cash flow, as well as stabilising workforce levels,” Calhoun said in a message to employees. Boeing said it plans to hold employment steady at 140,000 jobs, representing a 13% reduction from pre-Covid-19 levels.

Boeing jumped 5.6% to $234.77 at 9.32am in New York after advancing as much as 6%, the biggest intraday gain in four months. The shares had climbed 3.8% in 2021 to the end of Tuesday, trailing the 15% gain for the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

The surprise second-quarter profit compared with an average loss of 81c expected by analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. Revenue rose 44% to $17bn. Analysts had predicted $16.5bn.

“Today could be seen as a tactical victory for Boeing, but the strategic challenges remain,” said Robert Stallard, an analyst at Vertical Research Partners. 

Indeed, the Chicago-based company faces a long road to recovery, and a powerful rival in Airbus, which is looking to capitalise on its larger order backlog. Airbus, based in Toulouse, France, is slated to report its results on Thursday.

Another obstacle for Boeing is frayed US-China relations, which have injected uncertainty into the company’s timetable for speeding production of the Max, which is meant to be a cash cow. The model, which was banned worldwide for 20 months, is still barred from flying in its largest overseas market. In the US, regulators lifted the grounding in November.

Boeing is also wrestling with manufacturing flaws that have halted deliveries of its 787 Dreamliner aircraft, another key source of cash. The company has temporarily slowed output of the marquee wide-bodies as it searches for and repairs structural imperfections that are about the width of a coat of paint.

The balance of deferred production costs still on Boeing’s books from the Dreamliner’s troubled start rose by $124m in the quarter to $14.9bn, reversing years of declines.

Executives had warned earlier in 2021 that cutting production below a pace of five jets a month could clip margins and force the 787 programme into a reach-forward loss. But the company didn’t take the steep accounting charges that some analysts had predicted.

Calhoun and Stan Deal, Boeing’s Commercial Airplanes chief, face a difficult juggling act as they try to get production running smoothly without adding to the stockpile of hundreds of undelivered planes, mostly wide-body 787 jets and narrow-body Max aircraft.

The jetliner division pared its operating loss to $472m from a deficit of $2.76bn loss a year earlier, when the company wrestled with the worst of the Covid-19 crisis. Commercial revenue more than doubled to $6.02bn as deliveries rose.

Boeing is now manufacturing sixteen 737 Max jets a month and still plans to increase output to 31 a month by early next year. Inventories for the division declined by about $330m to $70.7bn during the quarter.

“The big picture is: defence, global services make up for commercial,” where sales were lighter than estimated, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst George Ferguson. He expects revenue to be affected near-term by a spate of 737 Max deliveries to Southwest Airlines, which used credits to lower its cash payments.

The cash that would typically be generated by the Max has been depressed by low production volumes since US regulators cleared the plane’s return last year after a 20-month grounding prompted by the two fatal crashes.

Boeing isn’t netting much cash by clearing its inventory of the aircraft, either. Airlines are mostly using credits, both for advances already paid to the plane-maker and compensation for the grounding, Agency Partners analysts Nick Cunningham and Sash Tusa said in a Tuesday report.

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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