Some see airline stocks as just the ticket
``In three years there will be three airlines, and it'll cost you $10,000 to fly to California,'' a New York analyst deadpanned recently. Hyperbole, of course. But a long-term investment in a few choice airlines does look rather tempting to some analysts now.Skip to next paragraph
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Assuming pending mergers get approved, five carriers (Texas Air, United, American, Delta, Northwest) will control 70 percent of the airline market.
At present, the earnings forecast for these carriers is remarkably free of inclement weather.
``The earnings outlook for the next six to nine months is better than I've seen in a long time,'' says Louis Marckesano, airlines-watcher at Janney Montgomery Scott in Philadelphia. ``And I've been following the industry for 25 years.''
On the revenue side, passengers are filling planes, and ticket prices are edging higher.
With a foundering People Express nearly tucked under Texas Air's wing, ``the impetus for lower fares disappears,'' Mr. Marckesano says. ``Over the last four or five years, People Express has put pricing pressure on everyone.''
He figures Texas Air will be too busy with its debt-laden balance sheet over the next year or so to start an all-out fare war.
On the expense side, fuel prices are down 35 percent from a year earlier. Two-tier contracts are bringing labor costs steadily lower. Consolidation continues to reduce the overall work force.
Marc Klee also predicts ``spectacular'' earnings gains. But the portfolio manager of the National Aviation & Technology mutual fund concedes that a dismal first half of 1986 will make the earnings comparisons unusually strong.
Still, he bluntly states: ``I don't think any airline, and I mean any, will underperform the market over the next two, possibly four, quarters.'' The nothin'-but-blue-skies forecast hasn't been lost on investors. Standard & Poor's airline index has soared some 25 percent since mid-July. Meanwhile, the S&P 500 has barely lifted out of ground effect, with a 4.5 percent gain.
Last week, the broad market averages ran into selling pressure as the Commerce Department reported lower retail sales in October and an uptick in wholesale prices. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 12.94 points last week, closing at 1,873.59. And takeover talk continues to dominate trading action.
E.F. Hutton, for instance, failing to get its $55 a share buyout price from Shearson Lehman Brothers, says it is not for sale. But rumors of suitors persist. Revlon bid $65 a share to take over Gillette. Merger speculation also pushed up shares of Bally, Lockheed, Stop & Shop, and Borg-Warner.
While more mergers remain a distinct probability, it's the improving fundamental outlook that is putting airspace under airline stocks - and Marckesano predicts continued gains.
``Shares of most bigger carriers will rise 20 percent over the next 12 to 14 months. Delta and US Air could see a 40 percent price jump.''
But the optimism of Mr. Klee and Marekesano isn't universally shared. Paul Schlesinger, an analyst with Drexel Burnham Lambert, eschews all the airline stocks at these prices.
``The group had a nice run because traffic was better than expected,'' he says. ``But we think that improvement is adequately reflected in stock prices.''