United Airlines (NASDAQ:UAL) was blowing up in the headlines last week, with reports of the forcible law-enforcement removal of a passenger from an overbooked flight.
In this week's episode of Industry Focus: Energy, Motley Fool energy analysts Sean O'Reilly and Taylor Muckerman explain the context that led to that point, why so many airlines overbook so many of their flights, a few ways that United might have responded better to that situation, and where United can go from here.
Also, the hosts talk about oil news from Russia and Venezuela, how current oil prices per barrel are affecting what companies are profitable, and more.
A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on April 13, 2017.
Sean O'Reilly: Welcome to Industry Focus, the podcast that dives into a different sector of the stock market every day. Today is Thursday, April 13, so we're talking about energy, materials, and industrials. I am your host, Sean O'Reilly, and joining me today in studio is the man, the myth, the legend, Mr. Taylor Muckerman. How are you today?
Taylor Muckerman: I'm good! What's up?
O'Reilly: Spring has arrived in D.C., getting out, seeing tourists now.
Muckerman: A little bit. It's spring break around here.
O'Reilly: I was joking with my buddy, like, the first day of spring, and this is the city where you start seeing everyone with their backpacks, asking how to get to the Washington Monument.
Muckerman: And the bright neon "I Love Washington, D.C." sweatshirts.
O'Reilly: And we love them. We love tourists. I'm more than happy to direct them as to which Metro station to use. So, we have a bunch of stuff to cover today, folks, including, [laughs] this is a good one, how Russia might be trying to take over your local gas station. That'll be fun. Oil producer profitability, trouble over at American Airlines, but first, we have to mention a tweet we received on the TMF Twitter handle about a company we failed to mention last week when we were discussing offshore drillers. I felt really guilty about this. It was on the tip of my tongue, though.
Muckerman: Well, there's just so many of them.
O'Reilly: There's fewer than there were a few years ago. [laughs]
Muckerman: That was actually a discussion that, if you were an investor, you would not want to hear their name mentioned, because it was a discussion of offshore oil companies that announced bankruptcy or restructuring.
O'Reilly: Our Twitter handle, @TMFEnergy, Levi Waddell, @Levi_Waddell said, "@IamSOReilly @t_Muckerman you didn't mention Atwood [Oceanics] in your offshore conversation the other day... thoughts on this one??" What are your thoughts, Taylor?
Muckerman: I'll make it as brief as a tweet.
O'Reilly: 140 characters?
Muckerman: I do -- in the offshore oil industry, this is a company that investors could definitely look at. It's a smaller company compared to an Ensco --
O'Reilly: They only have a fleet of 12, 13, 14 rigs? But they're all newer, as I understand it.
Muckerman: I don't have the exact rig count, but yeah. We talk about going down to Houston quite often, but a couple years ago I went down there and met with Rob Saltiel, their CEO --
O'Reilly: Your character count is over.
Muckerman: [laughs] Yeah, sorry. I met with Rob Saltiel, their CEO, and a couple of members of management. He's good pedigree; he came from Transocean; he said he's always out there visiting these rigs.
O'Reilly: You want that in a leader.
Muckerman: Well, he doesn't have as many rigs as Transocean; it might be a little harder for the CEO of Transocean to get out there and visit every rig in these remote parts of the world. But yeah, newer rigs, smaller rig count. Right now, no dividend, so you don't have to worry about the shares selling off due to a dividend cut like you've seen with Seadrill and Transocean. So, decent company. Market cap of around $700 million right now. If you believe in offshore oil, this is definitely a company that you should look at. It's part of the peer group that I believe you should consider.
Muckerman: Tweet us, anybody: @TMFEnergy!
O'Reilly: Yeah, and we'll give you a shout-out on air in 140 characters or more. Last night, Taylor, you sent me a really cool article about Russia, not about our government --
Muckerman: Yeah, not about government ties.
O'Reilly: -- not about anything going on in the world. But, they're trying to take over my local gas station. What going on here? That's not cool.
Muckerman: You might have heard of Citgo Petroleum, one of the top 10 petroleum refiners in the United States.
O'Reilly: They're actually owned by Venezuela.
Muckerman: Yes, they are owned by Venezuela.
O'Reilly: Or, we should say, state run.
Muckerman: What is it, PDVSA? The state-owned oil company down there. Unfortunately for them, they're not doing so well because of oil prices --
O'Reilly: Which were all connected by the circle of life, you'll remember that Venezuela was one of the countries begging OPEC to cut production, like, "We need higher oil prices, we're bleeding money!"
Muckerman: So they're close to defaulting on some debt that Russia owns. And as a condition of that loan, they can take over PDVSA's stake in Citgo Petroleum.
O'Reilly: This feels like Chapter 11, but on an international scale. I didn't know that was how it works.
Muckerman: Rosneft, not Russia the country, but Rosneft, which has close ties to the government -- we're not going to get into that -- but they pledged a 49.9% stake in the company if they defaulted, as their collateral. So it's not a majority stake, but it's darn near close.
O'Reilly: Plus, it's Putin.
Muckerman: It's close enough. CEO Igor Sechin, has long been considered Putin's right-hand man. So, an interesting little tidbit. Still waters run deep in the oil industry.
O'Reilly: OK. Moving on to more pleasant things: I wanted to get your thoughts, Taylor, I was reading an article the other day and I popped over to our friends at S&P Global Market Intelligence to see the earnings estimates of some of these more efficient shale producers that we always mention, the Pioneers and the EOGs (NYSE:EOG). Really quick, just wanted to rap about the prospects of, can oil companies theoretically make earnings, like, their actual earnings, very decent profits, even if oil doesn't return to $80-$100? Because, that is, of course, what everybody that produces oil wants. But if you're making $X per share five years ago when oil was at $100, you and I have both seen the cost cuts that these guys are talking up. Is it possible that you could make the same amount per share in profits --
Muckerman: I mean, I'm sure it's possible.
O'Reilly: But do you think it'll happen?
Muckerman: Oh. For some companies, sure. Like you said, share prices of companies like Pioneer and EOG weren't necessarily hurt as bad as companies that couldn't produce for under $60 a barrel. So, there was a flight to safety, a flight to quality there. It just goes to show you're going to have greater reward if you invest in these companies that are, "Drill, baby, drill" without the cost advantage. But that's increased risk. EOG and Pioneer have low-cost positions, they have low-cost technology, EOG is more vertically integrated and owns some of its own sand mines and rail lines --
O'Reilly: Plus, they're just there in Texas.
Muckerman: Yeah, they have the acreage. So, sure, it's possible, but not for everybody, for sure.
O'Reilly: This, of course, also leads to something we were talking about a week or two ago, which is, the rig operators are going to want their cut now, too. They've been generous the last couple years, which makes these guys' costs look good.
Muckerman: The rig operators kept their customers and business. Halliburton even went so far -- I can't speak for everyone, I'm just a shareholder in Halliburton. Maybe Schlumberger or Baker Hughes did this too, but I know Halliburton was even going as far as providing financing to some of their customers.
Acting as a lender. Not only are we giving it to you at a lower price than we used to, but we'll also lend you some money to pay us with.
O'Reilly: Wow. It's a symbiotic kind of thing.
Muckerman: Yeah. I don't think that's going on anymore, but it was, in the deepest, darkest depths of the oil price collapse.
O'Reilly: So Pioneer is at $180 a share. This is entirely dependent on commodity prices; this is a joke.
Muckerman: It's not a joke; it's very serious.
O'Reilly: It's very serious, but what if oil collapses? Expects to earn about $2 a share this year, $4.60 a share in 2018, $8 a share in 2019, 2020: $13, and 2021: $20.92. This is from analysts polled on -- I think there was four guys they polled. Anyway, that looks good, $20 a share in five years on a $180 stock.
Muckerman: Yeah, but is that because they're buying back more shares? Because they're actually selling more oil? Because they're cutting costs? Because the banks are paid to sell them?
O'Reilly: That's what I'm saying, this seems less predictable than Coca-Cola's earnings.
O'Reilly: Really? We're going to get into that?
Muckerman: [laughs] We're not; that's consumer goods.
O'Reilly: Where's Vincent Shen when we need him? [laughs] Same deal at EOG, yeah, I don't know.
Muckerman: It's absolutely possible, but not for everybody --
O'Reilly: You seem less enthusiastic on this idea.
Muckerman: Of returning to previous earnings per share?
O'Reilly: Yeah, at not-as-high of an oil price.
Muckerman: Yeah, because, as we've seen, traditionally, unless technology dramatically changes like it has with shale, oil tends to be more expensive to produce over time, because generally, you're going to produce the cheapest oil first.
O'Reilly: Oh. Trouble.
Muckerman: Which is why, before shale happened, we thought offshore was the next big thing, but it was going to be more expensive for these companies, so they had to plow billions of dollars into it, and that's why oil was so high. But then shale happened.
O'Reilly: And then those guys happened.
Muckerman: They found $50 barrel oil versus $80 barrel of Canadian oil sands and offshore oil. And they were able to drill, baby, drill.
O'Reilly: All right. Boy, this is dark today. We're talking about Russia taking over my gas station, oil profitability, and now United Airlines.
Muckerman: Oh. They caught a bad rap, I think.
O'Reilly: Actually, we have math to prove it.
Muckerman: Their employee did not rip that guy out of his seat.
O'Reilly: You think?
Muckerman: I know. Those were law enforcement that ripped him out of his seat. They just told him he had to get up, and when he wouldn't, the law stepped in and threw him into the next row and knocked him unconscious.
O'Reilly: The flight was overbooked.
O'Reilly: Right. Which is actually the cool math I have for everybody.
Muckerman: Oh, lay it on us. You and your maths.
O'Reilly: I understand there's a reason the world freaked out when Warren Buffett and his company, Berkshire Hathaway, bought stakes in American and Southwest, and that's because he has ripped on the airline industry for 40 years. It's because it's capital intensive, low margin, you're at the mercy of the weather, people --
Muckerman: But it's becoming more monopolistic, just like the railroads he dearly loves, just like the global cellphone market when he bought into Apple.
O'Reilly: If only my teacher from high school were here, he would say it's duopolistic, sir. Or, an oligopoly.
Muckerman: Oligopolistic. We'll go with that, oligopolistic.
O'Reilly: But they're still overbooking, and the reason is, think about it this way. United Airlines has over 4,000 flights every single day.
Muckerman: That's a lot of flights.
O'Reilly: And that's just them. And I have long said, I complain about the lines at the airport, and I complain about missing a flight or the flight being delayed or whatever. But at the end of the day, if you step back, what airlines are doing is amazing, every single day. Not one of these crashes out of the sky.
Muckerman: It's an amazing feat of logistics, yes.
O'Reilly: I am traversing across an entire continent, something that used to take months.
Muckerman: A few hundred other people on your plane only, and all your belongings.
O'Reilly: Technically, if you step back, it's actually very impressive what all these airlines do.
Muckerman: People get soft; they just expect it. They don't think about everything that goes into it, all the guys and gals driving the baggage trucks, getting your ticket handled on time. Just because you got offloaded, sorry.
O'Reilly: Deep. Taylor. Hard, God. By the way, during the Gold Rush, do you know how most people got to California? It was not on land.
O'Reilly: No, they would get on a ship, and you would go around South America, basically. It took a month and a half.
Muckerman: And they had, probably, less personal space than they do on an airplane.
O'Reilly: That's really hard to believe, but I believe you.
Muckerman: I'm reading a book about Vasco da Gama; these people were on ships for weeks coming from Europe to the United States and South America, and they literally couldn't even do a snow angel on the floor of these ships.
O'Reilly: And then you would get off and they would immediately check you for lice.
Muckerman: You think the pretzels on those planes are bad; try eating the rat-infested --
O'Reilly: I'm a Southwest man and I have love for their pretzels. I made a ticker symbol joke there. Anyway, point being, even if, let's pretend all of these fights have one missing seat. And you and I both know this is a very good rate, but let's pretend this seat could have been sold for $100, the ticket. That's a good deal. Four thousand flights a day, $100 for that one missing seat, that's $400,000 in missed revenue per day. You want these flights full. Every single one of them.
Muckerman: Yeah, makes it easier to estimate fueling, makes it easier to estimate staffing, stocking food and drinks.
O'Reilly: It doesn't matter how big of a company you are; $400,000 per day is something.
Muckerman: More than people make in a year.
O'Reilly: This actually gets even better. Apparently -- and I'm sure all the airlines do this -- they, of course, have a super algorithm, like the thing that runs Google, they have this to figure out if they should overbook a plane. It even calculates which flights to book based upon the data that they have for all the people on the flight. If you miss a bunch of flights, historically, if you have missed a bunch of flights, they are more likely to overbook that flight that you're on. That's ...
Muckerman: So you're saying they're rooting out the problem.
O'Reilly: They're trying.
Muckerman: They need to put a scarlet letter on those people's tickets so that when they do show up, someone can stand up and say, "Boo, this man!"
O'Reilly: The ticket should have a little sad cat like, "I'm really sorry," like the meme.
Muckerman: You automatically get stuck in the middle seat of the exit row and you can't recline, if you actually show up.
O'Reilly: Oh, man! So mean!
Muckerman: Or the jump seat.
O'Reilly: That's like, passenger ratings, like Uber driver ratings.
Muckerman: Exactly. Start it up, United. Start it up.
O'Reilly: So the video surfaced recently, it was not pleasant to watch.
Muckerman: It was graphic.
O'Reilly: The CEO, rightly, feels horrified and said it can never happen again. But I did happen to look up, this is a rarity. United Airlines, not even the airline industry, but United, bumped less than 0.1% of passengers last year. The last thing I had to say, and this is what I was thinking, but I heard they said, "We're offering a $200 flight voucher," and they ratcheted it up three times. I think the final value was $800 to get off the plane. If, in my opinion, the algorithm failed and they can't get customers to get off the plane, they ratchet it up three times, I think Econ 101 says they just need to keep going. There is a price that somebody would have gotten off that plane for.
Muckerman: Oh, for sure. But the thing is, I was thinking, if it was a Saturday or Sunday the next day, absolutely that ticket goes for $800, people get off, they spend another day in Chicago or wherever they were, but it was a Monday. I'm not saying everyone has Saturday and Sunday off, but a lot of people have work at 8 or 9 a.m. on a Monday morning. This particular guy said he was a doctor and had patients to tend to.
O'Reilly: My point is this -- if the algorithm fails, which, you guys created it, you guys made the algorithm, I don't think anybody else made that for you, if your algorithm fails, you should probably be paying to fix the problem. And, given what happened to the stock price this week... this is crazy, but, $5,000, some crazy number, to fix your algorithm not working or breaking. Plus, you need to move your employees, you want to keep them happy. It just seems like, once you start talking about $1,000 to stay in the city an extra day --
Muckerman: I don't think their algorithm was broken. I think the data you spoke of earlier, they're doing pretty darn well with it, the fact that this is the first time this has happened and it made the news cycle.
O'Reilly: So it works 99.9% of the time; why would you not pay $5,000 at that point?
Muckerman: OK. United Airlines: 120 voluntary denials of boarding per 100,000 boardings, 120. That's people who get up for the money or the hotel stay. Involuntary, like this gentleman, denials of boarding, Twelve out of 100,000.
O'Reilly: It's a lot of people.
Muckerman: They're ahead of Southwest and Alaska Airlines and American and Delta, but the worst offenders, SkyWest and ExpressJet at 180 voluntary denials per 100,000 and 16 involuntary for SkyWest per 100,000, and 20 per 100,000 for ExpressJet.
O'Reilly: So, 50% and 70% more. Actually 80%.
Muckerman: Yeah. I didn't do the math in my head just now. But, for 100,000, they're only telling 12 people that don't agree to the terms that they still have to get off.
O'Reilly: Right. It just seems like if your system is breaking down, and this is where the human heart comes in, this is where you're like... it's like Amazon. I remember this one time Amazon.com (NASDAQ: AMZN) had a customer problem, and one of their mid-level managers did all these analyses if they should pay the guy off or not, and they went to the upper management and they had all these spreadsheets, and they were like, "No, just give them the refund, we don't care. The customer is... "
Muckerman: Going to spend more money with you.
O'Reilly: Yeah, the customer just needs to be happy.
Muckerman: Their market cap dropped a lot more than $1,000 because of this.
O'Reilly: That's my point. There's a point where I will spend an extra day wherever for $1,000.
Muckerman: Yeah, even if it's a flight credit, that should inspire them to give even more money, because it's just coming right back to you. They're going to fly on your plane, they might buy a mini-bottle of Crown Royal, they're going to pay an extra bag fee, come on. And then your market cap doesn't drop by a few million.
O'Reilly: Yeah, when I was like, just keep raising the price, this is what makes a market, kids, come on. Anyway. All right, I guess we're done. Anything else? That's all she wrote?
Muckerman: No. I have to give it up to The Economist for that data I was talking about, denials per 100,000. Their graphic for that was "Mistakes on a Plane." It's low-hanging fruit, I know, but it made me chuckle.
O'Reilly: Oh, man. All right. Thanks for your thoughts, as always, Mr. Muckerman. Can't wait until...
Muckerman: Next Thursday.
O'Reilly: I don't want to fight with you because you'll fight back.
Muckerman: Aren't we doing some deep dive, no news, next week, unless something crazy happens?
O'Reilly: We have something special in store. We're going to dive into something fun. It's going to be cool; minds will be blown.
Muckerman: I hope so.
O'Reilly: That's it for us, folks. I want to remind our listeners that Fool HQ is closed tomorrow, and as such, we will not be posting a Techedition of Industry Focus this week. Tune in next week for Dylan Lewis' thoughts next Friday. If you're a loyal listener and have questions or comments, we would love to hear from you, just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, people on this program may have interests in the stocks that they talk about, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against those stocks, so don't buy or sell anything based solely on what you hear on this program. For Taylor Muckerman, I am Sean O'Reilly. Thanks for listening, and Fool on!