Warren Buffett certainly is not giving a thumbs up to the airline industry, not with COVID-19 playing havoc with medium-term prospects. Image Credit: AP

New York: Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. dumped its stakes in the four largest US airlines but the billionaire investor remains deeply exposed to the collapse in air travel.

Berkshire still owns all of Precision Castparts Corp., a supplier of aerospace parts that’s bracing for lean times as Boeing Co. and Airbus SE cut jetliner production. Berkshire bought Precision Castparts in 2016 in a transaction valued at $37.2 billion, making it one of Buffett’s biggest deals.

Now the maker of jet-engine blades and aircraft structural components is facing a double-whammy as the coronavirus pandemic all but erases demand for flights, prompting airlines to park jets and slash schedules. That means less need for replacement parts and a big drop in aircraft purchasing.

With carriers predicting that flying won’t return to 2019 levels for as long as three years, aerospace suppliers are hunkering down for a protracted slump.

No cyclical change this

“The current downturn is quite different from regular economic cycles,” said Nick Cunningham, an analyst at Agency Partners. “Normally, there’s an exaggerated short-term impact with a fairly quick return. This time around, the impact seems to be significant as you’re looking at a collapse in air travel around the world.”

Down in near triple-digit terms

In the US alone, passenger totals are down about 95 per cent from a year ago. An index of major US carriers has lost more than half its value this year, paced by a 70 per cent drop for United Airlines Holdings Inc. Buffett said he lost money on his investments in the industry, which also included stakes in American Airlines Group Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co.”

The airline business - and I may be wrong and I hope I’m wrong - but I think it’s changed in a very major way,” Buffett said. “The future is much less clear to me.”

Denting a $37.2b buy

Greg Abel, Berkshire’s vice-chairman for non-insurance operations, acknowledged at Berkshire’s annual meeting Saturday that Precision Castparts was getting hit, although its defense business remained strong. The parts maker is working to adjust the business to meet current demand, he said, and Buffett pointed out that the pain is rippling throughout the supply chain.

“We’re going to have aircraft in this country, we’re going to be flying. But the real question is whether you need a lot of new planes or not and when you’re likely to need them and it affects a lot of people,” Buffett said. “And it certainly affects Precision Castparts, it affects General Electric. It obviously affects Boeing.”

Everyone hurts

Boeing and Airbus have also tumbled by more than half, with steeper declines at suppliers such as Spirit AeroSystems Holdings Inc. and Triumph Group Inc.”It’s good for Precision Castparts that they’re not a standalone public company right now, because if they were, they’d certainly have a very low stock price,” said James Armstrong, who oversees investments including Berkshire shares as president of Henry H. Armstrong Associates.

“It’s not great news for them, but I don’t think that business goes away. I think it slows down.”

Precision Castparts has been hit by two massive and unpredictable blows that weren’t in any way its fault. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak pushed airlines into the worst crisis in industry history, Boeing’s 737 Max was grounded in March 2019 after two deadly crashes. The Chicago-based planemaker halted production of the Max, its best-selling jet, earlier this year as the flying ban dragged on.

A drag on all

The fortunes of Precision Castparts are largely tied to those of Boeing, said Scott Hamilton, a consultant at Leeham Co. who publishes a popular aviation news website. As goes the aerospace giant, so goes its suppliers, he said.”Nobody could have foreseen the airline industry collapse in which 95 per cent of the traffic evaporated virtually overnight,” Hamilton said.

“Nobody could foresee the grounding of the Max lasting what may be 18 months. And just as Precision is tied to Boeing, Boeing is tied to the airlines.”

Boeing also briefly paused production of multiple aircraft programs. The company has said it will reduce employment by 10 per cent, or about 16,000 jobs, and lower production of jetliners including the 787 Dreamliner.