A friend forwarded me the latest presentation from “guru” David Einhorn where his main long pick was AerCap, an Airplane leasing company.
To shortly summarize the “Long case”:
– AerCap is cheap (P/E 9)
– they made a great deal taking over IFLC, the airplane leasing division of AIG which is several times AerCap’s original size
– they have great management which is incentivized along shareholders
– The business is a simple and secure “spread business”
– major risks are according to Einhorn mostly the credit risk of the airlines and residual value risk of the planes
There are also quite obvious reasons why Aercap is cheap and trades at lower multiples than its peers:
– share overhang: AIG accepted new AerCap shares as part of the purchase price and owns 45,6%. They want to sell and the lock up is expiring
– following the IFLC/AIG transaction, the company was downgraded to “Non-investment grade” or “junk” and has therefore relatively high funding costs compared for instance to GE as main competitor
What kind of business are we talking about?
Well, Airplane leasing is essentially a “special purpose lending business” without an official bank license, one could also say it is a “shadow bank”. What Aercap essentially does is to loan an airplane to an airline.
In order to make any money at all, they have to be cheaper than the simple alternative which would be the airline gets a loan from a bank and buys the airplane directly. As Airlines are notoriously unprofitable and often thinly capitalized, they often need to pay pretty high spreads even if they borrow money on a collateralized basis.
As any lessor funds the plane mostly with debt, the cost of debt is one important factor to make money compared to competitors. It is therefore no big surprise that GE with its AA+ Rating is the biggest Airplane leasing company in the world and that ILFC thrived while AIG was still AAA and had comparably low funding cost.
Airplane buying is tricky business
A second aspect is also clearly buying power. Planes have to be ordered many years in advance and the two big manufacturers want to be sure that they are getting paid. I assume a reliable bulk buyer gets better access to the most sought after planes and maybe even better prices. Prices for planes at least in my experience are notoriously intransparent. Nobody pays the official list prices anyway. I found this interesting article in the WSJ from 2012.
When Airbus and Boeing Co. announce orders at the Farnborough International Airshow this week, they will value the deals based on the planes’ catalog prices—which no one pays. Airline executives, when pressed for details, will probably say they got “a great deal.” But actual terms will remain guarded like nuclear launch codes.
The aviation industry’s code of silence on pricing is notable in this era of information overload. Thousands of people world-wide are involved in airplane purchases, yet few numbers spill out. That yields much mystery and speculation.
Discounts are large:
But there are ways to estimate the range of discounts. An analysis of public data by The Wall Street Journal and interviews with numerous industry officials yielded this: Discounts seem to vary between roughly 20% and 60%, with an average around 45%. Savvy buyers don’t pay more than half the sticker price, industry veterans say. But deal specifics differ greatly.
But no one wants to talk about it:
One reason for the secrecy surrounding all this, say industry officials, is psychology: Less-experienced plane buyers like to think they got a bargain and don’t want to be embarrassed if they overpaid. The safest approach then is silence. More-seasoned plane buyers also know that bragging about discount specifics would anger Airbus, Boeing or other producers and hurt the chances of striking a sweetheart deal again.
Clearly, as a large “quasi broker”, Airline leasing companies seem wo have a chance to make some money in such a intransparent market. But it is really hard to pin down real numbers. It reminds me a little bit about how you buy kitchens in Germany where the system is pretty much the same. Everyone gets a discount, but no one knows what the “true” price looks like.
But this also leads to a problem:
With the current funding costs, AerCap would not be competitive in the long run. Let’s take as a proxy the 10 year CDS spread as a proxy for funding costs and compare them across airlines and competitors (more than 50% of AerCaps outstanding debt is unsecured):
|10 year senior CDS||Rating|
So purely from the funding cost perspective, AerCap at the moment has a problem. Someone like Air France could easily fund a loan for an airplane cheaper than AerCap, so cutting out the middle man is basically a no brainer and even the smaller competitors could easily under price AerCap when they bid for leasing deals. On top of that, a lot of non-traditional players like pension funds and insurance companies want some piece of the action, as the return on investments on those leases are significantly higher than anything comparable. Even Asset managers have entered this market and have created specific funds for instance Investec.
AerCap does have a positive rating outlook, so there is a perspective for lower funding costs. Just to give an indication of how important this rating upgrade is: On average, 10 year BB financial isuers pay 2,4% p.a. more than BBB financial issuers at the moment. The jump from BB+ to BBB- will not be that big but it would increase the investor universe a lot for AerCaps bonds.
The biggest risk for AerCap
So although I am clearly no match for David Einhorn (*), I would argue that the biggest risk for AerCap is not the residual value of the planes or the credit quality of the Airlines but quite simply the refinancing risk. AerCap has to fund a significant amount going forward and if for some reasons, spreads move against them, they will be screwed. Just a quick reminder what happened to ILFC in 2011:
Credit-default swaps on the company climbed this month as global stocks tumbled and speculative-grade debt issuance all but evaporated. The cost reached as high as 663 basis points on Aug. 11, according to CMA, which is owned by CME Group Inc. and compiles prices quoted by dealers in the privately negotiated market. The contracts have held at prices that imply ILFC’s debt should be rated B2, according to Moody’s Corp.’s capital markets group.
However if they manage to to get an investment grade rating and lower their funding cost, then it could be an interesting investment as funding is cheap and they do have access to a lot of new and sought after aircraft. Again, borrowing from Warren Buffett, with any leveraged company, management is extremely important.
And one should clearly compare AerCaps valuation and risk/return to banks and not to the currently much higher valued corporates. AerCap is much more similar to a bank than anything else. This general valuation disconnect seems to be also one of major reason why GE announced the massive reorganization just 2 weeks ago. However, as far as I understood tehy will keep the leasing business as this is unregulated.
Although I slightly disagree with the risk assessment of Einhorn’s case, I still think AerCap could be an interesting case and is worth to dig deeper. I don not have a problem investing into financial companies and I do like those “share overhang” situations. However, I will need to dig deeper and especially try to figure out how good AerCap’s management really is.
(*) I did disagree with David Einhorn already once with Dutch Insurer Delta LLyod which was Einhorn’s long pick of the year 2011. Overall in this case I would put the score of MMI vs. Einhorn at 1:0 as Delta LLoyd did not outperform.