Updated from Tuesday, Nov. 18For many companies, 2008 has been a terrible year. For Boeing ( BA), it has been a year of devastation. Now, Boeing's most compelling advantage -- its order book, with unfilled orders for 3,730 airplanes valued at $276 billion -- faces deterioration because the worldwide economic slowdown could leave airlines unable to take scheduled deliveries. The Wall Street Journal reports Wednesday that Boeing is reworking its entire production schedule, adding as much as 10 weeks to the original delivery date for all the airplanes in its order backlog as it tries to recover from a strike by its machinists. Boeing isn't expected to publicly discuss details of its new schedule -- which will include updated financial guidance and projections for how many airplanes it will deliver this year and next -- until early December, according to the newspaper. Commercial Airplanes CEO Scott Carson is expected to address some of the issues Wednesday during an analysts' conference hosted by Credit Suisse, the Journal reports. Essentially, the company's shares represent a bet on how the orders hold up. A year ago shares traded around $90, about $17 off their all-time high, reached in July 2007. They closed traded Tuesday at $38.50. This year, the bad news has been constant. The production schedule for the vaunted 787 collapsed, a strike by the International Association of Machinists lasted 58 days and delivery of a new model 747 has been delayed by nine months. Even the venerable 737 has problems: Boeing determined this month that thousands of faulty fasteners have been installed since August. Additionally, in March, in a shocking reversal after 50 years of supplying large refueling tankers to the military, Boeing lost out to rival Airbus, in conjunction with Northrop Grumman ( NOC), in bidding for a $35 billion Air Force contract to provide the next-generation model. Of course, the IAM strike is over, and Boeing engineers reached a tentative contract agreement Friday. Boeing's congressional delegates convinced the Pentagon to rebid the tanker contract. The 737 and 747 production problems appear manageable. And the world still needs aircraft. It just doesn't need them as quickly as everybody once thought.
Boeing CEO Jim McNerney believes "airline traffic is the key factor to watch" in assessing future orders, wrote Macquarie Research analyst Rob Stallard, who met with Boeing management last week. "Boeing has yet to see a slew of deferrals, but airlines have until spring of next year to defer 2010 deliveries," he said in a report, noting that Boeing may delay its 2010 guidance until April. Clearly, the worldwide economic pullback raises questions about Boeing's frequent assertions that broad geographic distribution protects its orders. Aviation analyst Scott Hamilton sees "a good likelihood of a drop-off in orders" and notes that among China's big three airlines, two are grounding aircraft while the third lost money in the third quarter. "China historically has been relied upon by Airbus and Boeing as a rock solid customer," Hamilton says. In India, another favorite of the aircraft manufacturers, airlines are expected to lose about $2 billion this year. The second-largest carrier, Kingfisher, is returning A320 jets. Additionally, International Lease Finance Corp., the major leasing company, is owned by troubled insurance giant AIG ( AIG). "The impact of the credit crisis is inescapable," wrote Gimme Credit analyst Carol Levenson, in a recent report on Boeing. Boeing's financing unit, Boeing Capital, "will have to step up to the plate," she said. Despite its current problems, Boeing was worse off 11 years ago, Hamilton notes. In 1997, the company sought to speed up production more quickly than suppliers could make parts. The result was a month-long shutdown, a rare annual loss and $2.6 billion in charges over two years.
"Those were mature programs that went haywire," Hamilton said. "Contrast that with today. The 787 line is in total disarray, but people recognize that Boeing is trying a new technology and new production methods. Except for the snafu with the 737s, the rest of Boeing is humming along pretty well." In a recent report, S&P analyst Richard Tortoriello says he continues "to expect Boeing's order book to support strong production in 2009 and 2010." He's also predicting strong 787 production in 2010. He has a buy recommendation on the stock and a 12-month price target of $53. Stallard has an outperform rating and a $63 price target. "We think Boeing is still being too optimistic about the 2-3 year outlook for aerospace," he wrote. "We expect to see significant pressure on 737 and 777 demand for 2010 and 2011." Nevertheless, he said, "the valuation already assumes a worst case aerospace scenario."