Boeing seen dodging real pain from China's warning shot on tariffs

Boeing shares fell as low as six per cent after news China is targeting US planes in tariff plans, but it's unclear whether its planes will be affected.
Boeing's 737 Max 9 jetliner stands at the company's manufacturing facility in Renton, Washington, on March 7, 2017.
Boeing's 737 Max 9 jetliner stands at the company's manufacturing facility in Renton, Washington, on March 7, 2017. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SINGAPORE (BLOOMBERG) - After reading the fine print on China's proposed aircraft tariffs, Boeing Co investors grew less alarmed about the prospect of a trade war.

The threatened 25 per cent levy, which is based on an aircraft's weight, targets a generation of Boeing's 737 jetliners that are nearing the end of their production run. All but one model of Boeing's newer 737 Max family would be exempt, according to a company document.

"It appears to us that the specific proposals from China this morning are calibrated carefully to avoid a major impact on Boeing and are therefore intended more as a message to the US administration," Seth Seifman, an analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Co, said Wednesday in a note to clients.

Even the prospect that China's tariffs would give an edge to Airbus at Boeing's expense is by no means assured, in part because the country typically balances orders between the rivals. But there's still a risk for both companies from policy uncertainty - and the potential for an escalating trade fracas to hamper global economic growth.

Boeing fell one per cent to US$327.44 at the close in New York, paring losses substantially after a decline of as much as 5.7 per cent, the biggest intraday drop in two months. Airbus fell less than one per cent to 92.81 euros at the close in Paris.

"While both governments have outlined positions that could do harm to the global aerospace industry, neither has yet imposed these drastic measures," Boeing said in a statement. "We will continue in our own efforts to proactively engage both governments."

China couldn't easily scrap its Boeing orders without hurting the country's three biggest airlines, said Douglas Harned, an analyst at Sanford C Bernstein. In the near term, the government-controlled carriers couldn't easily shift narrow-body orders, which are favored for shorter domestic routes, to Airbus since the European planemaker's A320neo family effectively is sold out through 2022.

US LEAVES DOOR OPEN TO TRADE TALKS WITH CHINA

"This is a bad sector for China to apply tariffs," he said in a note. The greater threat to Boeing from the tariffs is that the ensuing trade war would spiral into a global recession, he said.

Robert Stallard, an analyst at Vertical Research Partners, agreed."Today's Chinese tariff announcement is likely to be part of a broader trade campaign, and probably a negotiated 'cease fire' that is less draconian than either the US or Chinese terms," he said in a note.

"Boeing is caught in the trade-war cross-fire and is thus vulnerable to unpredictable changes in sentiment."

BEIJING'S AMBITIONS

China's proposed tariffs would affect planes weighing between 15,000 kilograms and 45,000 kilograms. If an additional levy is approved by the state, Boeing customers would face a total tariff of as much as 30 per cent. The 737 and the A320neo have list prices of about US$100 million, before the discounts that are customary in the industry.

Beijing's aircraft tariff comes as China aims to build its own planemaker to disrupt the Boeing-Airbus duopoly. State-owned Commercial Aircraft Corp of China Ltd is testing a new narrow-body jet.

Both Airbus and Boeing have had to contend with government pressure to establish local production facilities while at the same time navigating China's lax intellectual-property laws, a trigger for Mr Trump's initial tariffs.

"It's not in the interest of Boeing or the US to cede market share to rivals in one of the biggest markets," said Jin Wei, an aviation researcher at the China Center for Information Industry Development, a state-backed think tank in Beijing.

JOINT VENTURE

The outlook for rapid growth in the Chinese aviation market prompted Boeing to set up a joint venture in Zhoushan, China, to paint and install interiors on 737 jetliners bound for the country's airlines. The facility, with the potential to roll out between eight and ten 737 Max aircraft a month, is expected to start operations this year. Airbus has its own A330 completion center in Tianjin and assembles the A320 family aircraft locally.

Last year, Boeing raised its long-term forecast for aircraft demand in China as economic growth and an expanding middle class spur travel in the world's most-populous nation. China will need more than 7,000 new planes valued at almost US$1.1 trillion in the next two decades, the planemaker said in September.