Analysis | There’s probably no U.S. firm more at risk of trade retaliation from China than Boeing. Among the 10 U.S. companies getting more than $5 billion a year in China sales, Boeing stands out like a sore thumb.
If there’s a poster child for the tonic the current U.S. government has delivered to the country’s corporate sector, it’s Boeing.
Fueled by Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg’s cozy relationship with President Donald Trump, orders for Super Hornet fighter jets and corporate tax cuts, its 146 percent share-price increase since Election Day in 2016 has outpaced every other company on the Dow Jones industrial average.
Thursday’s 3.5 percent fall for Boeing shares after Trump tweeted out plans to impose tariffs on metal imports, and another 1.4 percent drop Friday, should be a warning sign that, beyond the current clear skies, a storm is building.
One obvious risk is increased costs. About 80 percent of an aircraft’s weight is aluminum, and Trump’s promise to slap levies of 10 percent on imports of that metal represents a pricing handicap in Muilenburg’s endless battle for market share with Airbus.
At the same time, that blow is likely to be cushioned by the fact that managing raw-materials costs is part and parcel of being a manufacturer. Aluminum prices have risen or fallen by 10 percent or more in all but eight of the past 30 years.
Boeing, moreover, isn’t a major buyer of aluminum straight from the pot: Most of its supply comes from Arconic, the specialty-products half of the old Alcoa business. Shares of Arconic slipped 1.5 percent on Thursday, an indication it’s expected to take part of the hit.
The bigger risk depends on how the coming days and months are handled.
There’s probably no U.S. firm more at risk of trade retaliation from China than Boeing. Of the 10 American businesses that declare more than $5 billion of sales in the country, three — Apple, Las Vegas Sands and Procter & Gamble — are dependent on consumer spending, so probably somewhat immune to government diktats.
Six more are in the semiconductor and tech businesses that China wants to encourage domestically, so they should also enjoy a degree of protection. Against that backdrop, Boeing stands out like a sore thumb.
Most of its biggest customers in China are state-owned airlines and lessors affiliated with government-controlled banks. The few independent players could easily be leaned on by authorities to defer existing orders.
China also has a sound self-interested rationale for pursuing an aggressive path. Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China, or Comac, is hoping to pitch its C919 jet as a homegrown competitor to Boeing’s 737 and Airbus’s A320, and announced last month it would make its first delivery in 2021.
Using a trade war to put one of the C919’s rivals on the back foot seems the perfect way to crack open the Boeing-Airbus duopoly and advance the interests of China’s own manufacturers. Should the current tit-for-tat over steel and aluminum spiral toward a trade war, few firms will find themselves in a more precarious position than Boeing.