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Cautious Airbus forecast disappoints after 2020 loss, reduction of dividend

PARIS — European planemaker Airbus axed its dividend for a second year and predicted flat deliveries this year as it braces for more coronavirus uncertainty after posting a 2020 loss.

The planemaker’s decision to restore key business targets is the latest evidence of recovery hopes being watched by financial markets following the pandemic, which severely hurt air travel.

Rival Boeing, mired in a separate crisis over the grounding of its 737 MAX that saw Airbus reclaim the title of largest global jetmaker, is not yet giving detailed views.

But analysts expressed concerns that the deliberately cautious delivery forecast from Airbus jarred with the same company’s plans to start unwinding cuts in jet production, albeit at a slower pace than initially planned.

Shares in Airbus fell 3.4% in early trading.

Chief Executive Guillaume Faury said the forecast was for “at least” 566 deliveries, unchanged from last year when production was 40% below its peak. This will give investors some visibility in a world in which the pandemic seems to be getting worse in the short term, he said.

The actual level of deliveries will depend on demand from airlines rather than supply chains or funding, he added.

A collapse in demand from carriers worldwide has left almost 100 jets sitting outside Airbus factories, down from a peak of around 145. But any shortfall in deliveries compared to factory production could drive the costly stockpile higher again.

“… we remain cautious about the pace at which the airline industry can rebuild its balance sheet to the point where aircraft demand rises significantly,” Jefferies analyst Sandy Morris wrote.

In a sign of the strain on airline finances, Airbus sliced 100 billion euros ($120.5 billion) or 20% off the value of its unfilled order book to 373 billion euros.

While the coronavirus crisis has raised doubts over the ability of airlines to honor contracts, Airbus said the decrease also reflected an unusually low set of new orders during the crisis and a weakening of the US dollar.

Airbus posted a 2020 operating loss of 510 million euros, weighed by charges booked in previous quarters, notably for restructuring and the closure of the loss-making A380 program.

On a widely watched adjusted basis, Airbus stayed in the black but saw operating profit drop 75% to 1.7 billion euros as plunging airline demand drove revenues down 29% to 49.9 billion euros.

The company’s helicopter division outperformed.

For 2021, Airbus predicted 2021 adjusted operating profit of 2 billion euros ($2.4 billion).

Stronger than expected jet deliveries in the fourth quarter helped Airbus generate 4.9 billion euros in cash flow before M&A and customer financing, beating a quarterly break-even target.

For the year as a whole, Airbus spent 6.9 billion euros, as the impact of the coronavirus crisis came hard on the heels of a record 3.6 billion euro bribery fine agreed in early 2020. Airbus said it expected free-cash flow breakeven in 2021. — Reuters

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