By Giovanni de Briganti
PARIS --- Boeing is lucky that its share price only dropped 3% yesterday, when it finally conceded the obvious: its 787 Dreamliner will not make its first flight before May 2008, and deliveries will be delayed by another six months, to November or December 2008.
In broadly similar circumstances, shares of Airbus parent company EADS dropped by over 33 percent on the day Boeing’s European rival announced, in early 2006, that deliveries of its A380 would be delayed by over a year.
The obvious reason for the difference is that, while Airbus admitted the delays would generate substantial financial losses, Boeing yesterday not only claimed that the “financial impact of the delay would not be material to earnings,” but also “that earnings guidance for 2007 and 2008 remains unchanged.”
This is a most surprising statement. Aircraft are mostly paid when they are delivered to the customer, so delayed deliveries mean delayed payments, and profits that are either wiped out by financial penalties due to customers or, at best, are pushed out into successive years. And that’s assuming that Boeing will not have to take any financial charges because of the additional six months of development work now required.
This requires a leap of faith, as it’s hard to see how delaying payments by six months and adding costs could have no financial repercussions, and not affect earnings. Investors, however, seem to have given Boeing the benefit of the doubt.
Yet, does Boeing management deserve such lenient treatment? The company’s recent history, which includes the notorious tanker lease scandal with the US Air Force, the illegal hiring of former USAF acquisition chief Darleen Druyun, and the resignation of successive CEOs under dubious circumstances, suggests otherwise.
Add to that the strong possibility that Boeing will lose the $15 billion contract to supply the USAF’s future Combat Search And Rescue (CSAR-X) helicopter, in which the Government Accountability Office has twice ruled against Boeing; recent allegations casting doubts on the Dreamliner’s ability to survive a crash; the fact that former Boeing superstar Alan Mullaly left for greener pastures at Ford Motor Co., an industrial basket case and, finally, the European Union’s pretty strong WTO case against US government subsidies to Boeing, which just might have to be paid back, and it’s hard to see what investors have to be so complacent about the company.
This latest episode must also raise new questions about the credibility of Boeing’s management.
Last month, it emerged that the first 787, which was rolled out to great fanfare on Aug. 7, was not a real aircraft, but an airframe temporarily put together for the day using fake fasteners which, subsequently, had to be removed and replaced one by one. To promote such an event as a roll-out has, at best, shady overtones.
And, surely, even those brilliant financial analysts that never questioned Enron profits, never saw anything fishy at Tyco, and didn’t know anything was wrong with sub-prime mortgages will eventually come to wonder why Boeing’s top management, when it said on Sept. 5 that the Dreamliner’s first flight would be delayed by three months, was so adamant that deliveries would nonetheless still take place in May.
Those statements, it now develops, were wrong, if not false, and in retrospect should have been accompanied by a “Safe Harbour” statement. But they weren’t, and as a result investors were misled, again.
It is obvious that, since Sept. 5, Boeing has found compelling a new reason serious enough to warrant so abrupt an about-turn on an issue as sensitive as Dreamliner deliveries.
What is that reason?