There’s no point in delving too deeply into the super obvious, which is that Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) and industry peers have been hammered by the coronavirus. That goes for most of the travel and hospitality space as well. Even after its recent bounce, DAL stock is still 53% from its 52-week high.
At what point does all of this panic become an opportunity?
For Delta and other airlines, that’s a very difficult question to answer because the situation continues to evolve. There are many unknowns and moving parts with the coronavirus and the airline sector.
How will the former ultimately impact the economy? How will the latter look after federal aid relief?
Airlines vs. Coronavirus
It’s not a secret to investors that the coronavirus has depressed global and domestic air travel. With President Donald Trump recently extending the social distancing guidelines until April 30 and with the U.S. now having the most COVID-19 cases, it’s unlikely consumers will be flocking to the airport anytime soon.
Airlines have become easy for the public to attack. Because the industry spent so much of its free cash flow on buybacks (with some reports as high as 96%), it’s understandable why many don’t want them to be bailed out. Critics should be aware that, while the industry spent billions on buybacks, virtually no business was preparing for such a slowdown in such a short amount of time. Unlike a regular recession, the global economy did not ease on the brakes — it slammed on the brakes with both feet.
That sudden disappearance of cash flow is dealing a swift blow to many companies, Delta included.
At the end of the day, air travel isn’t going away. The industry will receive federal aid as a part of the $2.2 trillion stimulus plan signed on March 27. The move should ensure that the industry stays upright in these difficult times and ultimately removes some risk for the group.
Valuing Delta Stock
DAL stock has always commanded a low valuation on a price-to-earnings (P/E) basis. The same goes for United Airlines (NASDAQ:UAL), American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL) and others. You can see that in a situation like this, a low P/E doesn’t do much to help. But you can also see where that low P/E doesn’t tell the whole story, especially when “E” — earnings — goes tumbling.
Get this. 30 days ago, analysts expected Delta to earn $7.42 per share in 2020. Now? That estimate is down to just 19 cents for the year. Obviously it’s too early to determine what COVID-19’s impact will be on this year’s financials. But the decline in estimates is rather incredible. It shows just how fast the economic landscape has changed in the past month and how much exposure Delta has.
When — not if — we get back to regular life, the airlines will still have planes in the sky. Luckily, DAL stock is one of the highest quality companies in the space. Generally, Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) has the best financials across the board. However, Delta was a close second in many categories.
The company churns out several billion dollars in net income per year and has solid free cash flow. In fiscal 2019, Delta generated $3.48 billion in free cash flow. Of course, with profitability and free cash flow plunging, liabilities and cash burn become the next concern.
Management said that Delta is burning about $50 million a day and saw negative net bookings in the short term. The bad news is that Delta’s best free cash flow quarter comes during the second quarter (which we’re about to enter). Q2 is the airline’s second-best quarter for revenue, which slightly trails Q3.
The hope is that by Q3, we’re seeing a solid rebound in economic activity. Many are even hopeful that that rebound begins at some point in Q2. But either way, it’s clear that one of Delta’s best quarters will take a huge hit.
Trading DAL Stock
Investors looking to scoop up airline stocks need to understand that the industry is likely to remain volatile. We don’t know if DAL stock or others will revisit the recent lows. The worst-case scenario is seemingly off the table with the $2.2 trillion stimulus package in play, although business is still going to suffer in the short term.
Does that mean we may revisit $20 again? Long-term investors would like it. From a technical perspective, I would love a chance near $14, although I’m not sure it will come to fruition.