What The Boeing Company Has to Prove About Its Massive Potential

Investors jumped on Boeing's stock as it soared to new heights last year. But if you're looking to buy now, wait for this one factor to develop.

Apr 11, 2014 at 2:10PM

Boeing (NYSE:BA) was easily the best-performing component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average last year; its stock price flew 77% higher. Investors were thrilled with the company's increased commercial aircraft operating margin, dividend increase, growing backlog of orders, and the debut of Boeing's 777X.

BA Chart

BA data by YCharts

Unfortunately, Boeing has lost its upward momentum and has declined nearly 10% this year. Here's how Boeing can turn it around and help its stock price recover, but it won't be easy.

What goes up, must come down
Last year, Boeing had some major events that helped drive the stock price higher. As the government continues to cut back on defense spending it has put more pressure on Boeing's commercial aircraft business to carry the stock higher. For that reason, investors were thrilled to see Boeing's operating margins in its commercial airplane division increase by 130 basis points to nearly 11% for full-year 2013.

Boeing also debuted its highly anticipated 777X, which will lower fuel consumption and operating costs by 12% and 10%, respectively -- making it a valuable purchase for the airline industry. During the 777X's debut at Dubai's Airshow it garnered a staggering 259 orders and commitments valued at $95 billion at list prices. To put that in perspective that exceeded Boeing's full-year 2013 revenue of $86 billion. 

Further, that wildly successful 777X debut helped push Boeing's already massive backlog of orders to $441 billion -- that's nearly five times estimated 2014 sales. That's a ridiculous amount of revenue transparency and safety cushion for investors. Also, we can't forget that late last year Boeing jacked up its dividend 50% to $0.73 per share.

These are just some of the big reasons Boeing had a stellar 2013, but those same factors aren't available this year to push the stock higher. To push its stalling stock price higher, Boeing will have accelerate its commercial aircraft production rate to cash in on its massive backlog and boost revenues.

But that's easier said than done.

Accelerating production
Boeing has accelerated production of its next-generation 737 by 33% since 2010, up to 42 planes per month. That's expected to drive deliveries 9% higher, which is key to generating additional revenue. Management also hopes to push production even higher, to 47 planes per month in 2017.

Further, Boeing is expecting to use more robotic technology to improve the process of building the 777X when it begins production. By using robots that aren't fixed on the assembly line, rather can move freely for different projects, will reduce the number of time-consuming, and thus costly, crane movements. Consider that the previous 777 production had roughly 39 time-consuming crane movements per day and the newer 787 Dreamliner has roughly seven per day. The details of Boeing's production strategy haven't been fully released, but the company expects the change to enable production of 100 777X planes per year, initially.

Boeing needs to execute on improving production rates this year to turn around its stalling stock performance. Unfortunately, if management can't execute higher production properly it won't lead to improved profitability. Take the 787 Dreamliner, for example.

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Boeing's first 787 to roll out at accelerated production. Source: Boeing

Say it isn't so
Typically, accelerated production does mean improved revenues and profits. Accelerated airplane production should help minimize overhead costs per airplane and, in Boeing's case, many of its suppliers are on volume-based contracts which means as Boeing orders additional components for production it will pay suppliers less per component -- a virtuous cycle.

That hasn't yet been the case with Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, which will play an integral role in the company's future profitability, because of lengthy delays and budget overruns. As Boeing increased its Dreamliner production to 10 airplanes per month it caused severe bottlenecks and the company was forced to hire thousands of contract workers in South Carolina. Boeing also had to send thousands of work orders to its larger plant in Everett, Wash., to keep overall Dreamliner production at a desired rate -- neither are cheap moves, to be sure.

Boeing's Dreamliner is still about a year away, or maybe further, from being profitable, which means accelerating production is only going to decrease commercial aircraft margins near term.

Foolish takeaway
Taking a step back and looking at the grand scheme of things, I like Boeing's potential. Consider that the world's commercial fleet is expected to double in size over the next 20 years, which Boeing estimates to be worth $4.8 trillion in new airplanes. I believe the company is well positioned to take more than its fair share of that pie over the next two decades as it has proven it can design and produce commercial aircraft that customers line up for. Before I jump on board and buy shares of Boeing, I need to see one thing: execution. The biggest takeaway for investors here is that execution, more so than usual, will be absolutely vital for Boeing to turn around its stalling performance. If it can't accelerate production without the mishaps seen with the 787 Dreamliner, I'll stay away from buying and keep Boeing on my watch list.

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Daniel Miller has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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