Boeing (NYSE:BA) delivered another strong earnings report on Wednesday, with "core" earnings per share rising 18% year over year to $2.52, outpacing expectations. However, the stock's reaction was muted -- Boeing shares ended the day up just 1.7%, remaining more than 10% below the all-time high set earlier this year.
The earnings report and management's commentary should give investors even more confidence about the health of Boeing's business. As the company works through its growth and cost reduction initiatives, earnings and cash flow can rise much further, delivering big gains for shareholders.
Solid numbers across the board
Boeing's rapid earnings growth was driven by a 9% increase in revenue, to $25.8 billion. Revenue from the commercial airplanes segment continued to grow at a double-digit pace, but Boeing also benefited from a rare quarter of revenue growth in the defense business.
As expected, Boeing posted explosive growth in its cash flow. Operating cash flow excluding pension contributions surged 72% year over year to $2.9 billion. Meanwhile, free cash flow skyrocketed to $2.3 billion from just $317 million a year earlier, due to lower pension contributions and a slight decline in capex.
Boeing's strong Q3 performance led the company to raise its full-year guidance for revenue, EPS, and cash flow thanks to a slightly higher forecast for commercial airplane deliveries and better-than-expected margins in the defense business.
Clear path to production increases
From a long-term investor's perspective, one of the best things about owning Boeing stock is that you can be relatively confident about the company's growth trajectory.
Boeing's commercial airplane segment backlog equals about seven years of production at current rates. The company has already scheduled production increases for the 737 program in 2017 and 2018, totaling a 24% increase in monthly production. 787 production will increase in 2016, and again in 2019, with the monthly rate rising 40% in the process. Even the ancient 767 is getting production increases in 2016 and 2017, albeit from a low base.
These gains might be offset by a production cutback for the 777 prior to the introduction of the new 777X in 2020. However, CEO Dennis Muilenberg told investors on Wednesday that even if Boeing has to cut production of the 777, it won't go lower than seven per month (compared to 8.3 per month today). Additionally, the cuts would only last for two or three years.
Factoring in pricing improvements driven by the upcoming introduction of several new models, commercial airplanes revenue could rise 40% or more by 2020. Since the commercial airplanes segment now produces more than two-thirds of Boeing's revenue, this will drive solid growth even if defense spending remains sluggish.
Earnings and cash flow growth will follow
Boeing's production increases, particularly for the high-volume 737 and 787 families, should benefit both programs' profit margins. Increasing volume allows Boeing to leverage its fixed costs, negotiate better deals with suppliers, and pursue cost-saving automation technology.
Additionally, the introduction of the updated 737 MAX in 2017 and the higher-capacity 787-10 Dreamliner model in 2018 will contribute to an improved product mix over the next few years. (A ramp-up in production of the 787-9 -- the middle member of the Dreamliner family -- will also help.)
For 2015, Boeing expects a commercial airplanes segment operating margin of about 9%. But Boeing's management believes this segment margin can ultimately rise to a mid-teens range as the product mix improves and cost-savings programs gain traction. This implies that Boeing has huge earnings growth potential.
Cash flow is likely to rise even faster than earnings growth, as the 787 program has been burning cash up until now. It is about to reach a turning point as initial inefficiencies are eliminated, cost reductions from suppliers come through (some of these are already included in firm contracts -- others are still being worked out), and the production rate increases. Over the next five years, cash flow from the 787 program should rise dramatically.
Despite the prospect of strong earnings and cash flow growth ahead, Boeing stock currently trades for just 15 times forward earnings. That's slightly below the average for the market as a whole. If Boeing can continue to execute well on its production increases and cost cuts, the stock should easily outperform the market over the next 5 to 10 years.