United’s plan to increase capacity drags down airline stocks
Shares of United Continental (UAL) are sliding after the company said in its earnings conference call that it plans to grow capacity by 4%-6% in 2018, likely threatening its profit margin.
This morning, Evercore ISI analyst Duane Pfennigwerth downgraded United to a neutral-equivalent rating.
Last night, United Continental reported fourth quarter adjusted earnings per share of $1.40 and revenue of $9.4B, with consensus at $1.34 and $9.42B, respectively.
The company also said Q4 2017 consolidated passenger revenue per available seat mile was up 0.2% compared to Q4 2016.
Additionally, the carrier noted it sees 2018 capacity growth of 4%-6%, and a similar growth rate in 2019 and 2020.
United expects 2018 EPS to be $6.50-$8.50 and sees 2018 capital expenditures of $3.6B-$3.8B.
In a research note to investors this morning, Evercore ISI’s #Pfennigwerth downgraded United Continental to In Line from Outperform, with a $75 price target, following its quarterly report.
The analyst noted that while United’s belief appears as high as ever in the view that restoring domestic share in its hubs is the shortest path to margin expansion, the “biggest missing ingredient” from its presentation was any evidence that the strategy is working.
The company’s higher growth pitch likely plays well with labor ahead of another round of contract negotiations in 2019 but limits broader participation from longer term investors seeking confidence at this point in the cycle, he contended.
Furthermore, the analyst argued that growth acceleration following poor pricing execution in 2017 and in the face of a significantly higher fuel curve is “surprising.”
Meanwhile, his peer at Stephens also voiced concern over the company’s capacity growth plans. While analyst Jack #Atkins acknowledged that he was encouraged that United issued both 2018 and long-term EPS guidance, he believes its plan to grow its system capacity by 4%-6% for each of the next three years is “concerning” as it implies about 6%-8% growth in the domestic market.
This level of capacity growth risks muting unit revenue growth in the market as well as potentially sparking a competitive response from one of United’s network peers, Atkins added.
The analyst told investors he expects the group to come under pressure as investors work to determine who has the most exposure to its incremental capacity growth and what it means for domestic revenue trends for the industry. He reiterated and Equal Weight rating and $78 price target on United Continental shares.
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In a note of his own, UBS analyst Darryl #Genovesi told investors he expects estimates for United Continental to move higher over the next few days and that he came away from the company’s guidance meeting more positive on the fundamental go-forward strategy.
The analyst pointed out that he believes the capacity concerns will likely get swept under the rug if industry RASM continues to be strong. Genovesi reiterated a Buy rating and $90 price target on United shares.
UAL is down 10.5% to $69.80.
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