China’s Skies Could Be Big Business for U.S. Aerospace Players

As U.S. aerospace companies brace for a decade of defense budget austerity, strong demand for passenger jets in China may be the silver lining in the thunderheads building ahead. Worldwide, airlines are expected to spend as much as $4.5 trillion between now and 2031 to buy 34,000 new aircraft — more than 23,000 of which will be fuel-efficient, single-aisle jets like Boeing’s (NYSE:BA) 737MAX and the EADS Airbus A320neo.

The Asia-Pacific region — which includes China and India — will account for between 9,600 and 12,000 new aircraft deliveries between now and 2031. In an updated forecast released earlier this month, Boeing forecast that China will need 5,260 new commercial airplanes — valued at a whopping $670 billion — over the next two decades.

EADS Airbus, which issued its forecast at the same time, estimates 4,272 new passenger aircraft deliveries to China during the next 20 years at a price tag of $634 billion. Airbus, which will challenge Boeing on its home turf by opening a manufacturing plant in Alabama, already builds A320 jets for Chinese airlines at an assembly plant in Tianjin.

This summer, Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ marketing VP Randy Tinseth explained skyrocketing demand for aircraft in the world’s largest economy like this: About 7,000 airplanes currently serve a U.S. population of 311 million. China’s population is quadruple that of the U.S., he said — but that country has only about 1,600 commercial planes.

Today, about one-third of the world’s air traffic lands in Asia. In 20 years, that share will rise to half of all global air traffic.

While Boeing and Airbus are the two 800-pound gorillas in the duel for commercial-aircraft manufacturing supremacy, the Asia-Pacific aircraft market is just too lucrative to leave to the established players. The biggest challenger to the global duopoly is Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China (Comac), which plans to roll out its new C-919 narrow-body jet in 2016.

Comac already has 215 orders for the C-919, which competes with the Boeing 737MAX and the A320neo. The jet boasts the fuel-efficient LEAP-X engine from CFM International, a consortium of GE Aviation (NYSE:GE) and Safran subsidiary SNECMA.

Canadian regional-jet manufacturer Bombardier (PINK:BDRBF) also is getting into the single-aisle, medium-haul market with two CSeries aircraft models that are expected to enter service late next year. The jets will be outfitted with the PW 1000, a fuel-efficient, geared turbofan engine built by United Technologies’ (NYSE: UTX) subsidiary Pratt & Whitney. While not part of the commercial aircraft forecast, Bombardier’s Learjet line is viewed as a growth opportunity in China as well.

With the defense/aerospace sector facing the prospect of at least $1 trillion in budget cuts over the next 10 years, a few hundred billion dollars in commercial sales from China would be more than welcome as Uncle Sam tightens his belt.

Here are six major U.S. aerospace companies likely to benefit from the ramped-up aircraft production needed to meet China’s burgeoning demand for aircraft (and it doesn’t hurt that their stocks are stable, dividend payers):

1. Boeing. BA is doing a good job of chasing commercial opportunities as the defense cuts loom. This week’s announcement that Dreamliner launch customer All Nippon Airways has ordered 11 more 787s valued at $3.3 billion is good news for the company. With a market cap of $52.8 billion, BA is trading around $70 — 23% above its 52-week low this time last year. The stock has a one-year return of 16% and a current dividend yield of 2.5%. Buy BA with a target of $81.

2. GE Aviation. GE’s commercial aircraft engines include the GE90, built specifically for the Boeing 777, and the GP7200, which is the Airbus A380 superjumbo engine produced in GE’s 50-50 joint venture with Pratt & Whitney. GE suffered a setback earlier this month after the FAA ordered immediate — and repetitive — inspections of its new GEnx engines after internal fractures were found earlier this month. The new engines are available on Boeing’s new 747-8 and 787 Dreamliner.

Of course, GE is a lot more than just its commercial aviation business, but so are most of these companies. With a monster market cap of $233.4 billion, GE is trading around $22 — 57% above its 52-week low last November. The stock has a one-year return of nearly 47% and a current dividend yield of 3%. Buy GE at a target of $25.

3. United Technologies. UTX’s Pratt & Whitney unit produces aircraft engines including the innovative PW1000G geared turbofan, which is available on the A320neo and the Bombardier CSeries. The Hamilton Sunstrand unit, which now includes the recently acquired Goodrich,  manufactures and integrates a wide range of systems and electronics for commercial aircraft.

The Electric Power Generating and Start System (EPGSS) designed for Boeing’s 787 supplies the Dreamliner with five times the electric power available to a similar size Boeing 767. The Goodrich deal gives UTC an advanced landing-gear product line.

With a market cap of $71.6 billion, UTX is trading around $78.50 — 17% above its 52-week low this time last year. The stock has a one-year return of 12% and a current dividend yield of 2.7%. Buy UTX with a target of $84.

4. Honeywell Aerospace (NYSE: HON). HON provides a robust array of electronic and avionics products for commercial aircraft, ranging from cockpit displays and instrumentation to exterior lighting and satellite communications. With a market cap of $46.4 billion, HON is trading around $60 — 44% above its 52-week low last October. The stock has a one-year return of 12.5% and a current dividend yield of 2.5%. Buy HON at a price target of $64.

5. Rockwell Collins (NYSE:COL). Rockwell Collins provides avionics and controls for the commercial air transport market including, but not limited to, communications, navigation, guidance, radar, surveillance and simulation products. With a market cap of $7.5 billion, COL is trading around $52 — 13% above its 52-week low in July. The stock has a flat one-year return, but a current dividend yield of 2.3%. I give COL a price target of $55.

6. Eaton (NYSE:ETN). ETN provides advanced fuel systems and components for the commercial aircraft market. It worked with Boeing to design a system compatible with the 787’s composite fuselage. Last month, Eaton won a contract from Bombardier for a fuel-tank inerting system for the new Learjet 85 business jet.

With a market cap of 15.6 billion, ETN is trading around $46 — 39% above its 52-week low last October. The stock has a one-year return of 33% and a current dividend yield of 3.2%. Buy ETN at a price target of $52.50.

As of this writing, Susan J. Aluise did not hold a position in any securities mentioned here.

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