I thought the Pentagon's go-to defense contractor, Lockheed-Martin (NYSE: LMT ) , had it all figured out with its pricey F-35 fighter jet. The company had planned to build thousands of the state-of-the-art planes for numerous world governments, bringing a windfall for shareholders. Unfortunately, problems arose once again. Will the Pentagon's frustration with Lockheed shoot down this stock?
Department of Defense diagnosis: frustrated
Mounting costs have become synonymous with Lockheed's high-profile, $396 billion project, but the F-35 has been progressing at a nice clip as the company begins to roll out operational aircraft. Last Friday, however, a Pentagon review of the craft ended with concern and doubts about the fighter's slow pace of progress. According to one participant, the technological challenges facing the aircraft's piloting helmet development turned the meeting "very painful."
Ouch -- that's not what Lockheed shareholders wanted to hear about the company's most recognizable project. To be sure, delays and setbacks frequently hit major aerospace programs; Lockheed even recognizes this in their 2011 annual report. However, if the company can't fix technical glitches surrounding the F-35 -- and if costs continue to soar for the Department of Defense -- then the Pentagon could very well slash orders for the pricey aircraft over its lifetime.
Should you be concerned?
Purchasing reductions hit Lockheed's F-22 fighter program as well, so the company has experience in this arena. However, with significant government budget cuts looming and sparking fears across the defense industry, the hit this time could be significantly worse.
Lockheed's competitors aren't making life any easier for the company. The super-merger in discussion by international aerospace and defense rivals EADS and BAE Systems would knock Lockheed off its pedestal as the largest defense contractor in the world by sales. A decline in future F-35 purchases would only add to that hit, for the fighter program is a valuable cornerstone in Lockheed's increasingly competitive future.
Nonetheless, this aerospace legend still has plenty to offer to your portfolio. Compare Lockheed against its peers, and the company looks very strong.
Return on Equity
Backlog (as of Dec. 11)
|Raytheon (NYSE: RTN )
|Northrop-Grumman (NYSE: NOC )
Source: Securities and Exchange Commission Filings and Yahoo! Finance
Lockheed's impressive backlog and dividend give you the best security in the defense field. The company even beats aerospace superpower Boeing (NYSE: BA ) in that regard, nearly doubling Boeing's defense, space, and security division's $46.4 billion backlog and flying unchallenged among the largest aerospace and defense corporations for pure income investors.
Don't lose sleep over it
You'll need to keep an eye on the F-35's development when considering Lockheed. As the company's most prominent current project, which is capable of bringing in huge future revenues, Defense Department concerns -- and even cuts -- over the fighter could spell trouble. However, it's virtually impossible to beat Lockheed's strengths as a stock and as the Pentagon's cherished contractor. "Very painful" concerns or not, if you want exposure to the defense sector, keep an eye on Lockheed.
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