United Analysts Rush to Reduce Estimates on Weak Outlook

Tickers in this article: UAL

CHICAGO (TheStreet) -- JPMorgan analyst Jamie Baker downgraded United on Friday, saying he anticipates a fourth-quarter loss and doesn't see good value by comparison with other airlines. A number of other analysts joined Baker in reducing estimates.

Baker's downgrade came after an unusual earnings call that online travel commentator Joe Brancatelli called an "excuse-a-thon." Brancatelli wrote on Twitter that executives including CEO Jeff Smisek left out one excuse: "The dog ate Smisek's spreadsheet."

United shares closed Thursday at $31.30, up 34% for the year. Shares were falling 3.3% to $30.27 on Friday.

Baker downgraded the shares to underweight and reduced his price target to $25 from $32.50. He said he views 2014 consensus estimates as too high and likely to diminish. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters were estimating 2014 earnings at $4.02 as of Friday morning. Baker said he once expected earnings of $5.40 a share "but we were unprepared for UAL's underwhelming guidance."

Baker noted that other airlines offer more compelling investment opportunities. Based on his revised forecasts, United trades at 13 times 2014 earnings, while Delta trades at 10X earnings and US Airways trades at 6X earnings. "Our expectations ask little of Delta's or US Airways' management aside from staying the course and maintaining momentum, (while) even our reduced expectations for United require relatively heavy lifting by management," he wrote.

In United's earnings release on Thursday, Smisek promised prompt action. But the level of action outlined on the earnings call was underwhelming.

On the call, executives enumerated three problems during the third quarter: 1) inaccurate demand forecasts led United to book too many low-yield tickets early in the quarter, reducing the opportunity to sell tickets closer-in at higher yields; 2) the Boeing 747 fleet was assigned to San Francisco to enable more preventive maintenance at the San Francisco maintenance base, diminishing the opportunity to deploy 747s elsewhere; and 3) the competitive pressure on China routes mounted due to increased capacity.

Other analysts were more sympathetic than Baker was, but at least four others joined him in reducing estimates. Wolfe Research Analyst Hunter Keay wrote Friday that United's passenger revenue per available seat mile guidance "of a 1% year over year decline in the fourth quarter resulted in a massive cut to our estimates, but the guide was accompanied with a sense of urgency and a plan to fix it."

Deutsche Bank analyst Mike Linenberg said he had expected a 2013 recovery for United, but now will wait until 2014. "Our call was that 2013 would be United's year to shine," Linenberg wrote in a report on Thursday. "We might have been premature in our thesis, considering that United's margins have been below the industry's average for the last few quarters.