Are you the kind of consumer who insists on owning the best product available? Are you willing -- put bluntly -- to pay up for quality? Boeing (NYSE: BA ) hopes you are. Because if you're not ... then Boeing could be in trouble.
In a pair of news items released earlier this week, the nations of China and Russia took direct aim at Boeing's biggest markets, with China targeting the firm's lucrative defense franchise, while Russia took aim at the firm's near-duopoly (with EADS) in the market for international commercial aircraft. Let's take these threats in order.
How much does that cost?
According to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lockheed Martin's (NYSE: LMT ) F-35 Lightning II fighter jet could very well be the "last manned fighter" jet the U.S. ever builds. (The future, you see, belongs to unmanned aerial vehicles.) But at a global price tag that some analysts project could top a trillion dollars over the program's lifetime, the F-35 is also undeniably the most expensive fighter program ever. The fear, therefore, is that developing nations looking to upgrade their Cold War-era rides may look at the plane's price tag and decide they're locked out of the luxury market and will begin looking for alternatives.
Enter China. Enter rock-bottom pricing.
No reasonable offer refused
Over at the Farnborough International Airshow in England, China showcased its new JF-17 fighter jet this week as an "econobox" alternative to Lockheed's aerial Cadillac. The JF-17 may not carry all the bells and whistles of a full-fledged F-35 superfighter (or it may, seeing as the Chinese apparently stole most of the F-35 specs last year), but with a sticker price of just $15 million, the plane easily has the F-35 fighter beat on affordability.
Fact is, if the $8.6 billion Canada just laid down for a few dozen F-35s is any indication of what Lockheed is charging its international customers (roughly $132 million apiece), the JF-17 will easily beat the F-35's asking price in China's targeted defense markets of Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Venezuela (and countries even less friendly to the U.S., such as Iran and North Korea). More important to Boeing, the JF-17 could eat into Boeing's own sales in wealthier, more advanced nations as well.
You see, as Adm. Mullen's pronouncement sounded the death knell to Boeing's hopes of building fifth-generation fighter jets in future decades, the company has made a strategic shift toward emphasizing the cost-effectiveness of its own fourth-generation fighters such as the F-18 in markets such as Brazil and Pakistan -- markets historically open to buying weapons systems not made in the USA. Indeed, Pakistani press sources are already reporting about the country's interest in buying the JF-17 to replace some of its older Chinese F-7 fighters.
As China gains traction is smaller markets, it's not just Lockheed that could find its defense markets shrink. Crumbs falling from Lockheed's table will increasingly elude makers of sub-fifth-gen aircraft such as Goldman Sachs' (NYSE: GS ) Onex, L-3 Communications (NYSE: LLL ) , and Boeing.
Of course, "defense" is just one part of the Boeing equation. Even if opportunities contract in the market for weaponized aircraft, the company still has its duopoly position in the commercial market to fall back on, right?
Right -- but perhaps not forever.
The best defense is good ... commercial
No sooner had the JF-17 flown onto Boeing's competitive scene then another bit of bad news for Boeing touched down en route from Russia: "Superjet International" is gaining traction. Over in England, Russian-Italian (majority-owned by Sukhoi, with Finmeccanica owning 25% and providing marketing muscle to the JV) SI just inked a $900 million deal to sell 30 Superjet 100s to Bermuda-based airplane-lessor "Pearl," with an option to buy 15 more aircraft. This comes on top of a 10-plane order from Gazpromavia, 30 additional orders earlier this week, and a monster 50-plane deal from Malaysia's Crecom to purchase MC-21 passenger planes from the firm.
Granted, Superjet's success poses a more direct threat to other up-and-coming regional jet makers such as Brazil's Embraer (NYSE: ERJ ) , Canada's Bombardier, and the new jets being designed in Japan and China, as well as smaller, business jet makers such as Textron (NYSE: TXT ) and General Dynamics (NYSE: GD ) . But the surprising sales success at Superjet does pose a long-term threat to Boeing. For one thing, the Superjet's near-100-passenger capacity makes it a viable alternative to Boeing's larger 737 series of aircraft (in particular, the 737-600). And at an apparent price of just $30 million apiece, the Superjet undercuts Boeing's list prices on the 737-600 by nearly 50%.
So is this a reason to sell Boeing? No, or at least, not yet. For the time being, most of the regional jet makers -- Superjet included -- are playing in a sandbox that Boeing has outgrown. They pose no immediate threat to the company's profits.
That said, Foolish investors would be ill-advised to ignore the longer-term threat. Once Superjet gains a toehold in the "regionals" market -- as it's now poised to do -- Superjet will be in a position to make the next logical leap to building longer-haul aircraft, selling them internationally, and stealing share from Boeing (and Airbus.)
Beware, Boeing bulls. This bear won't hibernate forever.