United Analysts Rush to Reduce Estimates on Weak Outlook

CHICAGO ( TheStreet) -- JPMorgan analyst Jamie Baker downgraded United ( UAL) on Friday, saying he anticipates a fourth-quarter loss and doesn't see good value by comparison with other airlines. A number of other analysts joined Baker in reducing estimates.

Baker's downgrade came after an unusual earnings call that online travel commentator Joe Brancatelli called an "excuse-a-thon." Brancatelli wrote on Twitter that executives including CEO Jeff Smisek left out one excuse: "The dog ate Smisek's spreadsheet."

United shares closed Thursday at $31.30, up 34% for the year. Shares were falling 3.3% to $30.27 on Friday.

Baker downgraded the shares to underweight and reduced his price target to $25 from $32.50. He said he views 2014 consensus estimates as too high and likely to diminish. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters were estimating 2014 earnings at $4.02 as of Friday morning. Baker said he once expected earnings of $5.40 a share "but we were unprepared for UAL's underwhelming guidance."

Baker noted that other airlines offer more compelling investment opportunities. Based on his revised forecasts, United trades at 13 times 2014 earnings, while Delta ( DAL) trades at 10X earnings and US Airways ( LCC) trades at 6X earnings. "Our expectations ask little of Delta's or US Airways' management aside from staying the course and maintaining momentum, (while) even our reduced expectations for United require relatively heavy lifting by management," he wrote.

In United's earnings release on Thursday, Smisek promised prompt action. But the level of action outlined on the earnings call was underwhelming.

On the call, executives enumerated three problems during the third quarter: 1) inaccurate demand forecasts led United to book too many low-yield tickets early in the quarter, reducing the opportunity to sell tickets closer-in at higher yields; 2) the Boeing 747 fleet was assigned to San Francisco to enable more preventive maintenance at the San Francisco maintenance base, diminishing the opportunity to deploy 747s elsewhere; and 3) the competitive pressure on China routes mounted due to increased capacity.

Other analysts were more sympathetic than Baker was, but at least four others joined him in reducing estimates. Wolfe Research Analyst Hunter Keay wrote Friday that United's passenger revenue per available seat mile guidance "of a 1% year over year decline in the fourth quarter resulted in a massive cut to our estimates, but the guide was accompanied with a sense of urgency and a plan to fix it."

Deutsche Bank analyst Mike Linenberg said he had expected a 2013 recovery for United, but now will wait until 2014. "Our call was that 2013 would be United's year to shine," Linenberg wrote in a report on Thursday. "We might have been premature in our thesis, considering that United's margins have been below the industry's average for the last few quarters.

"The company still has much work to do in terms of integrating labor, perfecting its revenue management system, and optimizing its fleet/network to achieve better financial performance," Linenberg said. "However, we see no structural challenges that would prevent the carrier from improving results and narrowing the gap vs. competitors over the long-run. We maintain our Buy." He has a $40 price target, but reduced his 2014 estimate to $3 from $4.60. He also cut his full-year 2013 estimate to $2 from $2.75. For 2013, analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters were estimating $2.48 as of Friday morning.

In a report -- "A lackluster quarter for the sleeping giant" -- Cowen & Co. analyst Helane Becker reduced her 2014 estimate to $3.30 from $4. She reduced her fourth-quarter 2013 estimate to 18 cents from 50 cents.(Thomson Reuters had 39 cents on Friday morning.) She reduced her 2013 estimate to $1.92 from $2.60. Her price target is $39.

Imperial Capital analyst Bob McAdoo maintained an outperform rating and a $36 price target, but lowered his full-year 2013 estimate to $2.31 from $2.81 due to higher expected current quarter costs, partially offset by lower fuel costs. McAdoo said United "continues to benefit from an improving industry landscape as capacity cuts helped drive modest improvements to unit revenue in the quarter."

McAdoo noted that United's "peers have been reporting all-time record results." He pointed out that "United's quarter was the strongest since 2011," but said he prefers Delta, US Airways and Alaska ( ALK).

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

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