Boeing's earnings, outlook overshadowed by 787 unknowns

Boeing

Just over a month ago, Boeing was flying high.

Its airplane factories were humming and speeding up production. Its defense business had just been restructured to deal with dwindling budgets in the United States and Europe. The company was confident enough to increase its dividend and resume buying back shares.

Perhaps best of all, Boeing was shortly to reclaim the title of world's biggest plane maker, snatching back an honor that its arch rival Airbus had held for a decade.

But with its new 787 Dreamliner still grounded by two battery failures on the eve of its 2012 earnings release, the Chicago-based aerospace and defense giant is in no position to rest on laurels.

Analysts and investors are likely to grill Chief Executive Jim McNerney about the costs of fixing the 787 when the company reports earnings on Wednesday.

Those costs are unknown but mounting daily as airlines are barred from using the high-tech plane. Boeing is still building five Dreamliners a month but isn't delivering them to customers. With each of them carrying a list price of $207 million, they quickly become an expensive pile of jets outside Boeing's factories in Everett, Washington and North Charleston, South Carolina.

That is why Wall Street is looking for guidance from McNerney about how painful the grounding is getting.

"For now, we know there have been costs," said Howard Rubel, an analyst at Jefferies Group. "While the cause of the event is still not clear, a host of possible items have been eliminated." Those include excessive voltage reaching the battery and obvious anomalies in the battery construction.

A one-month delay in 787 deliveries could cost $1.2 billion in revenue this year, said Zafar Khan, an analyst at Society Generale. He has a "sell" rating on the stock.

OTHER CHALLENGES

Analysts say that most of Boeing's businesses remain unaffected by the 787 problems. It is still producing huge numbers of planes, will enjoy strong cash flow this year as it delivers those jets, and has orders to last another seven years at current production rates.

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