Trump's Just Set Boeing on a Collision Course With China

(Bloomberg Gadfly) -- 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 Co.

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 after Trump tweeted out plans to impose tariffs on metal imports 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 SE.

Trump's Just Set Boeing on a Collision Course With China

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 Inc., the specialty-products half of the old Alcoa Corp. 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 Inc., Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Procter & Gamble Co. -- 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.

Trump's Just Set Boeing on a Collision Course With China

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 Inc. has a sound self-interested rationale for pursuing an aggressive path. Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China Ltd., or Comac, is hoping to pitch its C919 jet as a home-grown 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.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

  1. On the broader S&P only chipmakers Nvidia Corp. and Micron Technology Inc., plus  dental braces-maker Align Technology Inc. have done better.

  2. Caterpillar Inc. and United Technologies Corp., which fell percent and percent respectively on Thursday, may also be in that category. But they don't break out how much of their Asia-Pacific revenue, worth about billion at each, comes from China specifically.

To contact the author of this story: David Fickling in Sydney at dfickling@bloomberg.net.

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