“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money” – U.S. senator Everett Dirksen
Malaysians are not new to financial scams and scandals of immense proportions.
Let’s pause for a moment and consider these figures: the latest MYR42 billion losses from 1MDB, Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ) incurred losses of MYR12.5 billion in 2008, and Bank Negara Malaysia, the central bank, blew over MYR31.5 billion between 1992 and 1994 in forex losses.
These are just some examples of plundering that have taken place over the past 30 years. Someone out there has actually put together a list on Wikipedia. Take a look here.
One of the most prolific plunderers (of taxpayers’ money) is national carrier Malaysia Airlines (MAS). The airline has turned the act of losing money into a fine art, losing MYR2.5 billion in one financial year alone, in 2011. It prompted then chief minister of Penang – now Malaysia’s new finance minister Lim Guan Eng – to describe it as “shocking”.
Lim has a point. Despite persistent losses, the airline’s parent and sole shareholder Khazanah has been unable (or unwilling?) to install professional management at the company. A German touted as a “turnaround specialist” was appointed MAS’ first expat CEO in January 2015 following a “rigorous assessment”.
Alas, Mueller left after barely a year at the helm, citing “personal reasons”. His replacement, Irishman Peter Bellew, lasted slightly longer – just over a year.
Malaysians are waiting anxiously to see what Lim, who now controls Malaysia’s purse, will do with MAS’ and Khazanah’s management.
By the way, why do photos of ousted former premier Najib Razak, the ex-second finance minister Johari Ghani and ex-secretary general of treasury MoF Irwan Serigar still adorn Khazanah’s website more than a fortnight after Malaysia ushered in a new government?
When it comes to burning money, few GLCs can rival MAS; it is simply sensational at squandering cash. In FY2005 it posted losses of MYR1.3 billion. In 2013, the penultimate year it was listed on the bourse, MAS incurred losses of MYR1.17 billion . The year before (2012) it lost MYR432.6 million.
Over a period of 20 years (1997-2017) it is plausible the carrier frittered away at least MYR20 billion, and we’re being conservative. Even after a bailout of MYR6 billion from Khazanah in 2014, and assurances that its recovery is on track, the airline remains in peril, with current liabilities of more than MYR1 billion according to people familiar with its finances.
Let’s open the Pandora box
On May 24, Malaysia’s new government revealed the country’s national debt had crossed MYR1 trillion. That’s 80.3% of GDP; as a rule of thumb, anything over 60% is a cause for concern as it could result in a country’s credit rating downgrade.
The previous government under Najib Razak, who was premier and finance minister, had put the official debt figure at MYR686.8 billion as of end-2017 or 51% of GDP. Here’s how finance minister Lim said he arrived at the new figures.
The latest revelation has caused astonishment and anger, not to mention shock. But while the figure of MYR1 trillion does look big – there are 12 zeros – let’s look closely at what it actually means.
Is Malaysia about to go bust? The short answer is no. In fact, Malaysia is in no danger whatsoever of going bankrupt. Is the financial system in a crisis? Again, no. As the finance minister readily said, Malaysia’s banking system remains intact and is well capitalised.
More importantly, Lim signalled Malaysia had the capability to service its debts when he said the government would pay all obligations. “We will honour those… ”, he stressed.
That’s positive news, at least to the major credit rating agencies that are assessing Malaysia’s financial standing following the installation of the new administration. Rating agencies focus mainly on a sovereign’s ability to repay debts on time, as well as how it manages its fiscal policies and the country’s cashflow.
Moody’s current view of Malaysia is A3, with a stable outlook. It has flagged the loss of revenue from the abolishment of the Goods & Services Tax (GST) as a negative, even if oil revenue improves following higher crude prices. In 2017, GST revenue was MYR44.3 billion.
Standard & Poor’s rates Malaysia A- with a stable outlook. In its most recent review in June 2017, S&P highlighted the country’s “strong external position and monetary policy flexibility”. At the same time it noted that Malaysia’s general government fiscal position carries contingent risks (including a USD3 billion letter of support for 1MDB) from its public enterprises and financial sector.
Seen in the context of Malaysia’s GDP, its debts and fiscal deficit – MYR11.2 billion in 1Q18 or 3.3% of GDP – shouldn’t make the finance minister lose sleep at night. It’s manageable. That said, we haven’t seen the end of the 1MDB saga and where it’ll take the country. Malaysia’s current woes look petty now, compared to what lies ahead. This is just the beginning…
It has been a strange week, one that has seen some strange sights. In Malaysia’s history of strange sights, there has never been quite anything like this.
Malaysians woke up on May 10 to a new government, but not a new prime minister. Mahathir Mohamad was Malaysia’s fourth premier for 22 years (1981 to 2003) and is now the country’s seventh leader and the world’s oldest.
At 92, and despite two bypasses, he isn’t just sprightly; he is mischievous, displaying his trademark sarcasm and wit at a 3am press conference following his party’s victory. The next morning, on May 11, he was spotted cycling along the lake at Putrajaya.
We don’t know what it’s like to be Mahathir, but we imagine there are enjoyable moments. Cycling aside, he enjoys riding horses and, it would seem, proving Tony Fernandes wrong.
Mahathir is well known for giving Fernandes the green light to start AirAsia by letting the former Warner music executive buy two B737 belonging to DRB-Hicom in 2001 for a mere MYR1 or 25 US cents.
Fernandes, on the other hand, is well known for his penchant for football (he owns English club QPR), Formula 1 (Caterham) and hanging out with Nazir Razak, youngest brother of Najib Razak, the leader Mahathir toppled last week.
Both Mahathir and Fernandes have the gift of the gab and a wicked sense of humour.
While one is a doctor and the other an airline CEO, they both have political leanings. Many of us will agree, the true art of politics is to utter the foolish and the ridiculous – at the same time, with a straight face.
Which is why we were amused by the political stunt that Fernandes pulled recently. First, the AirAsia boss, looking comfy and relaxed at home, came up with this video just days before polling day on May 9, coaxing Malaysians to vote for the incumbent leader and his Barisan Nasional (BN) party.
Second, he ferried ex-premier Najib and colleagues from Kota Kinabalu to Kuala Lumpur on an AirAsia X A330. To add glamour to the event, the plane was plastered with BN’s slogan. On top of that, AirAsia X’s cabin crew wore blue (the colour of BN) instead of its usual red.
Long story short, Fernandes got a lot of stick from many Malaysians for sucking up to Najib. On May 13 he apologised on video and said his actions were done under duress.
Those of us in the aviation community who have followed his mercurial rise and success with AirAsia know Fernandes as an extremely savvy, slick and smart corporate figure. In other words, he’s far too clever and too shrewd to be coerced into making a video batting for BN unless he expected it to win.
In his video apology, Fernandes claimed he was under pressure and that “one must always support the government of the day”. It was unnecessary because AirAsia is a well-run, profitable airline with a sound strategy and is serving Malaysia and Malaysians well. No right-thinking government would do anything to destabilise or destroy it.
Meanwhile, his grovelling did little to pacify netizens and presumably his shareholders, too, when AirAsia’s shares tanked at the bourse. Worse, Fernandes is now facing a potential court case after he claimed the Malaysian Aviation Commission (Mavcom) had forced the airline to cancel 120 flights.
Mavcom has lodged a police report against Fernandes. As many aircraft financiers will tell you, Fernandes can be belligerent and AirAsia has upped the ante by saying the airline had evidence against the regulator. Fernandes added he saw no reason for Mavcom’s existence.
To make things merrier, AirAsia X’s chairman Rafidah Aziz, a former trade minister under Mahathir’s previous administration and someone who is “loved” by Fernandes, believes the new prime minister – with whom she has very close ties – will bring positive impact to aviation in Malaysia.
She expects the problems faced by the industry to be “eased and removed” and that AirAsia will be “flying in clearer skies”. There’s little doubt AirAsia will continue to survive and prosper – in spite of this latest skirmish – because it has first mover advantage in the region and it has the right business model.
Whether you like or loathe him, Fernandes has put Malaysia on the world map. His words are often abrasive but he has consistently done something which no other Malaysian has in the airline industry: make money.
What about Malaysia Airlines then, the national carrier? Will it be positive for MAS under Mahathir? He has thus far been understandably busy with other pressing national issues that require immediate attention, and MAS isn’t one of them although it’s a matter of time before Mahathir reviews the carrier and its parent, Khazanah.
MAS’ future looks grim as it has, according to people familiar with its finances, once again racked up huge debts, this time over MYR1.5 billion (USD378 million). Sure, it’s a pittance compared to 1MDB’s MYR42 billion losses but still shocking nonetheless after the restructuring undertaken by Khazanah Nasional in 2014 that cost taxpayers MYR6 billion.
This was our take on the flag carrier in a CNBC interview in 2014.
They think they know best; that’s the problem with MAS and Khazanah. It makes us weep. Almost.
With the prospect of losing a USD20 billion aircraft deal in Iran looming ever closely, Boeing appears poised to forfeit another one following the installation of a new government in Malaysia, Southeast Asia’s fourth biggest economy.
On Sep. 12, 2017, Malaysia’s ex-premier Najib Razak confidently told US president Donald Trump that Malaysia Airlines (MAS) would acquire eight B787-9 Dreamliners and eight B737 MAX jets. Those aircraft have a list price of USD3.06 billion before discount.
During election hustings the past fortnight Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s newly elected 93-year old leader, made a mockery of Najib’s trip to Washington and the subsequent promise to buy Boeing planes. It is understood Mahathir will instruct officials in his administration to review the MoU signed between Boeing and MAS. The MoU, which isn’t binding, will “almost certainly be scrapped,” according to an insider.
This was our analysis when the Boeing-MAS accord was inked.
Malaysia’s national flag carrier is about to see a radical removal of many of its key officials in the coming weeks, including directors on its board, as Mahathir wastes little time in overhauling the country’s government-linked companies (GLCs) and crucially, its sovereign wealth fund, Khazanah Nasional.
Khazanah Nasional is the parent of MAS. In 2014 it delisted the airline after decades of losses and summarily sacked 6,000 workers. The then government also enacted MAS Act 2014, ostensibly to facilitate the rehabilitation of the airline but seen by many of its workers as being unjust.
MAS’ board of directors is led by Md Nor Yusof, chairman of the airline and Malaysia Aviation Group. He was the managing director of the carrier from Feb. 2001 to Mar. 2004 and subsequently sat on Khazanah’s board from Apr. 1, 2006 (no, this isn’t a joke).
MAS’ board comprises 13 directors (including CEO Izham Ismail), several of whom are from Khazanah and a mish mash of corporate figures, including one who is known to be a very close ally of former premier Najib. Why a loss-making airline such as MAS needs 13 directors is beyond us, given that just next door, Singapore Airlines does perfectly well with only eight.
Mahathir has been critical of Khazanah’s management of MAS for a long time. He sarcastically remarked that Malaysians were “too stupid” to run an airline when Khazanah appointed German expat Christoph Mueller as the company’s first foreign CEO. Ironically Mueller lasted barely a year, resigning from the carrier due to “personal reasons”.
Read Mahathir’s caustic comments about Khazanah’s decision to assume full control of MAS here.
Mahathir has a sharp grasp of the aviation business and recognizes its importance to Malaysia. He started the Langkawi International Maritime & Aerospace (LIMA) exhibition in 1991 when he was the country’s fourth premier.
And let’s not forget that it was Mahathir the doctor who had a hand in the birth of AirAsia; he had the foresight and wisdom when he gave Tony Fernandes approval to buy the two aircraft from DRB-Hicom for a token MYR1 (USD0.25).
He was also instrumental in getting Boeing to set up a joint venture plant in his home state of Kedah with carbon fiber maker Hexcel in 2002, producing aileron composites for the 737 aircraft.
It’s unclear the extent to which Malaysia’s new leader will go to rid MAS and its stakeholder of its incompetent executives and dead wood. People close to Mahathir – once described by Australian premier Paul Keating as a “recalcitrant” – say he will leave no stone unturned.
What is clear is that for many directors within MAS and Khazanah, their days are numbered.
It’s probably fair to say that Heather Cho Hyun-ah knows more about macadamia nuts than most people.
The former vice-president of Korean Air became infamous in late 2014 after ordering the flag carrier’s aircraft back to the gate at JFK New York as it was about to take off for Seoul. The reason: she was unhappy the nuts served in first class came in a bag, instead of on a plate. This incident has even made it into Wikipedia as the nut rage incident.
Being petulant seems to run in the Cho family. Last month her younger sister Emily Cho Hyun-min, a senior vie-president in Korean Air, was suspended following allegations she threw water into the face of an advertising manager.
But wait… the sisters’ mother is now being accused of behaving crudely and rudely, too. A video recorded in 2014 purportedly showed their mum physically harassing workers at a construction site being developed into a hotel owned by the Hanjin Group.
More seriously, the Cho sisters are not just being accused of being ill mannered; Korea’s Custom Service now say they are probing allegations the two women smuggled luxury goods into the country using Korean Air planes without paying duties.
Korean Air is slated to host the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) 62nd Assembly of Presidents on the resort island of Jeju on October 18-19. It remains unclear if Emily, Heather and their mother will be there to mingle with the delegates…
The Hanjin Group, one of the country’s biggest chaebols or conglomerates, is the owner of Korea’s flag carrier. Hanjin’s founder is Cho Choon Hoon, who was also Korean Air’s former head. His son Cho Yangho is the current chairman and co-CEO of the airline. The president and co-CEO of Korean Air is Cho Won-tae, Yangho’s only son and grandson of Choon Hoon.
Following the above incidents, there are murmurs amongst Korean Air employees for the airline to be run and managed by professionals (meaning non-Cho family members), especially since the carrier is publicly listed. Hanjin Group controls about 30% of the airline while Korea’s National Pension Service has a 13% stake.
There have increasingly been calls for the flag carrier to cease being called Korean Air, as it is majority owned by the Cho family, and not the Korean people.
Interestingly, since the historic meeting between South Korean president Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un on April 27, there’s widespread discussion within the Korean aviation community of a (potential) unified airline for the two Koreas. This came after Pyongyang made a request last week to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to open up new international air routes.
Not surprisingly this has sparked a lot of speculation on North Korea’s appetite to open up. But all things being equal, a joint national airline is something that is far off. The immediate thing that needs to happen before there’s any talk of any collaboration is the official cessation of the Korean War and the removal of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).
Having said that, a Korean Air employee we communicated with recently perhaps spoke for many of his colleagues when he suggested (half in jest) the two Cho sisters (and maybe their mum) be posted to the national airline of North Korea, Air Koryo, to “learn some manners”.
Korean Air’s stock has been stagnant since the start of 2018, and closed Friday at KRW34,150 (USD32.15) per share while that of its 100%-owned low-cost subsidiary, Jin Air, ended at KRW32,150. From an equity perspective Jin Air is performing better than its parent, with its stock price gaining almost 20% since January this year.
Jin Air operates six domestic flights and 26 international destinations, including Kota Kinabalu and Johor Bahru in Malaysia. It operates four widebody Boeing 777-200ERs on its long-haul flights. The airline’s market cap is around KRW500 billion, smaller than its discount rival, Jeju Air with a market cap of KRW740 billion.
*Pil Sung: In Korean it means “certain victory”
Twenty-seven years ago Boracay had no airport, no Internet connection, no big hotels, no crowds. It had a solitary bar along White Beach that served San Miguels for 50 cents a pop, accompanied by soothing sounds from the 80s. It was bliss.
We’ve not been to Boracay since then, so we can’t smell the cesspool that the Philippine president spoke of recently but it does look like things have gotten very nasty indeed.
Like Bali in Indonesia, Phi Phi in Thailand and many other resort islands around the world, Boracay is plagued not just by plastics but by parasitic peripatetics. The photos of Boracay in its current condition paint a sorry state of affairs. Can the proposed six months of zero tourism fix it?
The airlines that fly into Boracay Airport (also known as Caticlan Airport or by its code MHP) are undoubtedly feeling the brunt of President Duterte’s edict.
The affected carriers include Air Juan, AirSWIFT, Cebu Pacific, Philippine Airlines (PAL Express), Philippine AirAsia and Skyjet.
Air Juan said the Boracay/Caticlan routes account for some 15% of its business.
Cebu Pacific, the airline majority-owned by the JG Summit conglomerate, operates 180 weekly flights to the said routes. It has about 140,000 passengers confirmed for scheduled flights to Caticlan and Kalibo from April 26 to June 25.
PAL Express has five flights a day to the resort island from Manila, Clark and Cebu. Philippine AirAsia has some 100 flights a week to Boracay.
To puts things into perspective, Boracay contributes PHP56 billion (just over USD1 billion) to the Philippine economy. It is, by a long distance, the most popular destination in the Philippines.
The Philippine government has estimated a loss of up to PHP20 billion (USD385 million) for the six months closure. Some 35,000 workers, mostly on Boracay itself, will be affected.
President Duterte has said the displaced workers will receive payments from a PHP2 billion (USD38.5 million) fund. Whilst money and losses from tourist receipts will be severe, Boracay is in serious need of repair.
When we first visited in late January in 1991, the number of tourists that traveled to the archipelago the year before was a mere million. Last year (2017) the Philippines played host to almost 7 million visitors and a third of those (over 2 million) came to Boracay.
The island is tiny, just 4 square miles. Bali by comparison, is 2,200 square miles! Boracay has a resident population of just 30,000.
Access to Boracay in 1991 wasn’t easy. One had to fly from Manila to Kalibo (about an hour), take a bumpy 2-hour ride on a jeepney to Caticlan port and then hop onto an outrigger (known locally as bangka) for about 15 minutes, before arriving on the island (one has to wade in seawater to get ashore as there wasn’t a jetty).
Fridays Boracay, where we stayed for two nights almost three decades ago, sits on the exquisite White Beach, with its fine, almost salt-like sand.
In 1991 Fridays was a row of simple, elegant chalets with hardly any tourists. Today, Fridays boasts of an outdoor pool, beachfront bar and of course, free wifi. TripAdvisor reckons it is worth four stars.
Despite its serenity and splendour, Fridays hides a dark secret. One of its founding owners was found murdered in Manila in a case that has yet to be resolved.
And in 2004 three high profiled, wealthy Europeans and their domestic helper were stabbed to death at a luxury villa in Boracay, purportedly by robbers.
How to save Boracay then? Like Bali and Phi Phi, ecological disaster awaits Boracay, if it hadn’t arrived already. Sustainable tourism is the way to go but that’s unlikely to be practised in these once pristine islands.
There are 7,600 other islands in the Philippines, perhaps tourists can be enticed to go to some of them? Part of Boracay’s many problems is partly self-inflicted, too.
Earlier this year a Macau-based company, Galaxy Entertainment, inked a USD500 million deal with the Philippine government to build a casino along the beach.
Ironically the boss of the gaming firm met with President Duterte in December 2017 to discuss and get approval for the project.
China signalled it is ready to cut purchases of Boeing aircraft after announcing it is imposing 25% tariffs on single-aisle planes weighing between 15 and 45 tonnes. The immensely popular B737 family of aircraft will be affected.
Beijing revealed its retaliatory plans on April 4, after Washington declared a 25% tariff on about 1,300 Chinese products.
Read our comments on Bloomberg regarding the implications of the dispute.
China’s Ministry of Commerce gave no date for the 25% hike; Chinese officials said it depends on what the US president does and how he reacts to duties placed on Chinese products.
Here’s CNN’s take on the developing story.
Last year Boeing delivered 202 planes to Chinese carriers and half of those were in the narrowbody (B737) category. China is such a huge market for Boeing that B737s sold to Chinese airlines make up a third of Boeing’s production.
In its Current Market Outlook released in Beijing last September 2017, Boeing predicted a demand of 7,240 new aircraft in China over the next two decades. That’s worth some USD1 trillion.
In 2016, the US sold China aircraft worth USD15 billion at list prices.
In May last year Boeing started work on a B737 delivery centre in Zhoushan. It’s slated to deliver its first aircraft end-2018. The plant aims to deliver between eight and 10 planes a month.
It’s unclear if Beijing would actually go ahead with the tariffs, with its trade and airline officials clearly preferring to avoid such a standoff. The CEO of China Eastern Airlines, however, warned it wasn’t afraid of a trade war and is prepared to change aircraft types as well as routes if it comes to that.
But make no mistake: there are no winners in a trade war. In this instance the US stands to lose more, not just Boeing but its airlines. Five US carriers fly directly to mainland China (see the table below).
And according to the US Travel Association, Chinese tourists to the US spend on average almost USD7,000 per trip – more than those of any major inbound market. In 2016 three million Chinese made trips to the US, an increase of 15% year-on-year.
A lengthy and messy trade war (or any other war) is likely to hurt the appetite for air travel.
Travel exports to China, i.e. spending by Chinese tourists and students in the US, and on US airlines, amounted to over USD33 billion in 2016. That’s more than any other country. This includes USD12.5 billion in education-linked spending by Chinese students.
China can inflict severe pain on its opponent. Beijing’s decision to boycott South Korea’s tourism industry over Seoul’s decision to install a US missile system in 2017 cost the Korean economy USD6.8 billion.
China had been the largest source of foreign tourists to Korea; half of the 17 million foreigners who visited the country in 2017 were Chinese.
As it is, US airlines already struggle to gain more direct flights (a protected market) to China. It’s a government-to-government decision on how many flights are allowed between both countries, and there’s usually more capacity than demand. In 2017, United cut flights to Xi’an and Hangzhou, citing poor demand.
There are 59 direct (non-stop) flights between China and the US at the moment. Imagine the fallout to the US economy if there’s a decline of just 10% in Chinese visitors to the US.
That said, China has to be careful in totally brushing aside Boeing. If Beijing completely stops buying the B737s, China loses its leverage with Airbus. It’s never wise to depend on just the one manufacturer.
Chinese carriers flying direct to the US
|Air China||China Eastern||China Southern||Hainan Airlines|
US carriers flying direct to China
Guangzhou Baiyun International (CAN)
Beijing Capital International (PEK)
Shanghai Pudong International (PVG)
Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
Detroit Metropolitan (DTW)
George Bush Intercontinental (IAH)
Honolulu International (HNL)
John F Kennedy (JFK)
Los Angeles (LAX)
Newark Liberty (EWR)
San Francisco (SFO)
Seattle Tacoma (SEA)
Washington Dulles (IAD)
Would you step into an aircraft with “666” as part of its registration – the number of the beast for those who are superstitious – let alone fly in it?
Malaysia’s first Embraer Legacy 500, a midsize business jet made by Brazil’s Embraer, arrived at Senai International Airport in Johor Bahru (JHB) after a long ferry flight from São José dos Campos around mid-March.
With triple sixes in the aircraft’s registration, the USD20 million private plane is the first medium cabin business jet with digital flight controls, based on fly-by-wire technology. It can fly at 45,000 feet and is powered by two Honeywell HTF7500E engines, touted as the “greenest” in its class.
Perhaps one of the best things about the jet is its range – 3,125 nautical miles, or 5,788 km, with four passengers. That means it can fly non-stop from JHB to Delhi (DEL), Perth (PER) or Tokyo (HND).
Endau Analytics was invited to review the jet this past week.
We took off late morning from JHB in clear, sunny conditions, with two pilots and five passengers. Destination: Penang.
The Legacy 500 can take off in just over 4,000 feet and with the runway at JHB at over 12,000 feet, it was a cinch for the plane to make a quick, swift getaway. Its maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) is 37,919 pounds.
Interestingly the Legacy 500 can land in around half that distance (4,000 feet), meaning this plane is perfect for many small airports in ASEAN.
Once in the air, the first impression is the stillness (very quiet) and the spaciousness (floor-to-ceiling is 6 feet) as well as its simple yet elegant bespoke interior.
We were kindly requested not to show the cabin interior by its owner, a low profile, unassuming businessman.
The Legacy 500 has a fabulous cockpit. It sports Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion avionics, with four 15-inch displays, with options like paperless operations capability, auto brakes and the Embraer Enhanced Vision System, which includes a Head Up Display (HUD).
Our commander during the flight was Embraer trainer pilot Captain Luiz Salgado, who took us cruising at 32,000 feet at around Mach 0.8.
In about an hour we landed at Penang’s Bayan Lepas International Airport. The landing was smooth and quick, assisted by the jet’s carbon brakes and brake by wire.
Conclusion: the Legacy 500 is a private jet that punches above its class. At its list price, the jet is certainly value for money, with comfort level, safety and performance matching many aircraft priced higher.
By the way, here in Asia, the number 6 has a different connotation. Our Chinese friends are quick to remind skeptics that “666” or “liuliuliu” in Chinese means smooth or skilled.
Dear John, we are going to break something to you, as gently as we can.
What we are going to say may upset you and your colleagues at that most august of airline abode in Hong Kong – Swire Pacific.
Anyway, here it goes: the airline business has changed, Hong Kong has changed and Cathay Pacific Airways has not, from the look of it, embraced change. Swire Pacific, the airline’s parent company, appears averse to change.
The chairman of Hong Kong’s flag carrier, John Slosar, on March 14 attributed Cathay Pacific’s consecutive annual losses – its first since the airline was formed in 1946 – on over-capacity and declining yields which, he lamented, made it tough to make money.
When the 2016 losses were announced, he blamed weak demand for the airline’s premium cabin as well as intense competition from mainland China.
Tell us something we don’t know, John…
Blaming over-capacity and falling yields is a lame excuse. Period.
How about taking to task whoever it is in the airline that does its fuel hedging? In the 2017 financial results Cathay said losses from wrong-way fuel bets came up to HKD6.4 billion (USD816 million).
Sure, that figure is an improvement on 2016’s hedging losses (HKD8.46 billion) but Cathay seems to have perfected the art of losing heavily in the jet fuel hedging game. Hedging losses in 2015 amounted to HKD8.47 billion.
So, in three years the carrier lost over USD2 billion! Cathay clearly sucks at playing the fuel hedging roulette, but it keeps playing it. Why?
Cathay’s CEO Rupert Hogg said he was confident about market demand in Hong Kong, including those in the premium segment. Hogg said the target was to grow 4% annually until Hong Kong gets its third runway.
But the competition is going to get more intense by then. All this talk that fewer people want to come to Hong Kong to connect on to another flight as one of the key factors hurting Cathay sounds like a broken record.
Indeed, if one is traveling between Europe and Australia, it makes sense to stop over in the UAE, Qatar or Singapore, instead of in Hong Kong.
It is true the mainland Chinese carriers are impacting on Asia’s major legacy airlines –Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines. It is true, too, current climate of low jet fuel prices will pressure competition and we continue to witness price dumping in 2018. It is also true the premium segment remains in decline.
Everyone seems to know the reasons for the decline but how to make full service carriers like Cathay and SIA competitive again?
Could it be that Cathay is not doing enough to control its costs? Or that it doesn’t quite know what its mid- to long-term strategy ought to be?
Does Dennis Muilenburg know what saudade mean?
The Boeing CEO should, or at least people around him must acquaint their boss with saudade, given that the company he leads is said to be keen to buy 51% of Brazilian aircraft maker Embraer.
Saudade is not easily translated into English, but to a Brazilian and of course, to a Portuguese, it’s a word that evokes a sense of yearning, a longing for a thing or a person.
Embraer’s employees – in São José dos Campos and around the world – are currently deep in saudade, not knowing what to expect or what will become of the company, the world’s third biggest plane-maker.
We know Boeing is after Embraer following Airbus’ 50.01% acquisition of Bombardier’s C-Series programme, the C-Series Aircraft Limited Partnership or CSALP. Apparently Airbus got it for almost nothing.
It would appear Muilenburg and his team realizes there is a significant (and potentially lucrative) market in the regional aircraft (100-130 seat) market.
It would also appear both Airbus and Boeing understand that in the near future there will likely be less orders for their A320 and B737 family of planes, respectively, judging from the backlog both manufacturers have.
That leaves the regional plane segment as the new battleground between the two giants.
“Not a must do” or till cash do us part?
Boeing and Embraer management have given vastly differing clues on how the talks are going.
Another very senior Embraer executive told us there were many aspects to the potential collaboration, not just nuts and bolts. Critically, he added, the financial figures have not been fully discussed, or even talked about in great depth.
What is a fair valuation, then? What’s Embraer E2 series worth to Boeing, for example? The military programme, it has been reported, will be kept entirely in Brazilian hands.
Various numbers have been bandied about since the talks were made public, ranging from USD3 billion to USD4 billion. That’s peanuts for Boeing. Embraer is worth a lot more than that.
The US giant anticipates total revenue of between USD96 billion and USD98 billion this year. Operating cashflow will rise to USD15 billion. And Boeing’s shares are soaring through the roof. Muilenburg’s compensation reflects that: in 2016 his total pay was USD15 million.
In São José dos Campos, Embraer employees aren’t as well paid as their Seattle counterparts. But what they lack financially, they make up in artistry and passion – check out the fantastic hand painted livery of the 190-E2 aircraft recently exhibited at the Singapore Airshow – executed by an Embraer worker named Clodoaldo Quintana.
The bottom line is, what can a Boeing-owned Embraer do that the Airbus-Bombardier partnership can’t, or won’t? We know Embraer does very well in the US; in fact much of its revenue is derived from North America. But what about in Asia Pacific, where the markets are more complex and more challenging?
Here, in this region, we feel the Airbus CSALP venture might have the upper hand because: (a) the CS aircraft are seriously good, and appeal to many Asian airlines, (b) Airbus traditionally has a more imaginative approach to pricing its aircraft (read whatever you want into that), and (c) Bombardier has sold more airplanes in Asia than Embraer – whether those planes (turboprops and jets) made money to the airlines that bought them is another debate – but the Canadians have a pretty strong track record.
There is a chance the deal might not happen but one gets the impression Embraer’s management wants it to happen. Will Embraer be severely disadvantaged if the deal doesn’t go through?
Not necessarily. The E2 series has solid potential, provided Embraer plays its cards well and reads the market (especially in Asia) astutely. It needs to take a leaf from Brazil’s other great export – its football. Joga bonito, Embraer!
Airbus announced on Feb. 15 that it registered an 8% rise in adjusted 2017 operating profit of EUR4.25 billion (USD5.26 billion) on revenues of EUR66.8 billion. That’s despite the European plane maker disclosing that it took a hit of EUR1.3 billion on its problematic A400M military plane programme.
See the full release here.
Strong demand in the commercial aircraft sector is underpinning the manufacturer’s solid market position. As of end-2017 the company’s order backlog stood at 7,265 aircraft valued at just over USD1 trillion.
The backlog (almost 10 years) is focused mostly in the single-aisle, narrowbody segment of the A320 family of aircraft. This reflects the market demand for this plane. Airbus’ friends in Seattle, however, sold more aircraft in 2017 – for the sixth consecutive year.
The widebody, twin-aisle market remains controlled by Boeing as Airbus struggles to sell its A380. The European company is doing better with the A350XWB (it delivered 78 of these in 2017, up almost 60% year-on-year).
In our view, Airbus’ backlog is its main strength. It provides investors with a positive view over the medium term on the company’s forward revenue. That said, the backlog is a double-edged sword, as there is a long waiting period for customers.
Airbus has said it will ramp up production in Europe (Hamburg and Toulouse), the US (Mobile, Alabama) and at its plant in Tianjin, China to 60 aircraft per month by mid-2019. It also plans to produce 10 A350XWB by end-2018.
From the profitability standpoint, Airbus appears to perform below average in this sector but it is making good progress with the development of the A320neo (new engine option) programme.
But ramping up production and developing new engine options (for the A320 and A330) costs money, so there will be volatility in the company’s financial performance near-term.
Compounding this is the EUR:USD exchange rate, and we expect Airbus’ margins this year and next to be affected by fluctuations in the forex market. A large chunk of Airbus’ costs are denominated in EUR while its revenues (at least 65%) are received in USD. Airbus does have a long-term hedging plan in place and is also doing much to raise its assets in the US.
Which is the (financially) stronger airplane maker – Airbus or Boeing?
Right now and until the end of this decade, it’s Boeing.
Just take a look at Boeing’s share price (around USD355 as of Feb. 16). It’s gained quite a lot in 2H17 but we think it has more upside, particularly in 2019 and 2020 when the B777X starts to make its appearance. Simply put, Boeing’s return on capital and equity is just awesome.
Boeing is also in talks with Brazil’s Embraer for a possible tie-up, although it’s unclear in what form at this stage. What is clear is that Boeing has sufficient cash to buy up all of São José dos Campos – lock, stock and barrel.
Meanwhile, Airbus (its share price is hovering under EUR95) will be looking to officially seal its collaboration with Bombardier on the C Series programme by year-end.
And it does have an advantage over Boeing with that backlog, which is fantastic, but does Airbus have the capacity to build more aircraft annually than what it is currently doing (under 700 planes)?
So while it’s great to have almost 10 years of production locked in, Airbus may not be able to sell more planes in the coming years. Unless they can churn out over 750 per year, which begs the question: how do you do that with the existing facilities?
That’s the billion euro question for Airbus’ new chief salesman Eric Schulz and whoever replaces current CEO Tom Enders in April 2019, to answer…