High Oil: A Year Of Bankruptcies For Auto And Airline Firms?

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American Air (NYSE: AMR) dropped 10% yesterday to and hit $10.20. The shares have not been at that  level since 2004. American lost money three of the last five years. It had a small net profit in 2007 of just over $500 million on $22.9 billion in revenue. The margin is razor thin.

In 2007, American also had interest expense of over $900 million. Long-term debt is about $9.4 billion.

In an industry which is as well-known for its bankruptcies as it is for its bad food, 2008 is shaping up as a truly awful year. Fuel prices are rocketing as oil passes above $107 a barrel. The recession is likely to put a drag on passengers, both business and pleasure. The $500 million that American made last year could turn to a loss of several billion in the blink of an eye.

The situation in the auto industry is as bad, for many of the same reasons, especially high oil prices which have gas at almost $3.50 and a market where customers will wait one more year to buy a car because they are as poor as church mice.

Shares in Ford (NYSE: F) fell to $5.58 yesterday. In early 2006 when several credit analysts said Ford might have to seek bankruptcy protection its share were higher than they are now.

Ford is going to be squeezed and squeezed hard this year. Commodities costs for car components are rising rapidly. Lehman Brothers has estimated that this could add over $350 to the cost of each vehicle. Ford and other car companies cannot get buyers into dealers, even with large incentives. The US car industry could loss over one million domestic unit sales compared to 2007. That is over $25 billion in revenue. Twenty percent of that could come from Ford based on its market share and the rate at which its sales are dropping.

The Ford family will obviously resist any effort to take the firm into bankruptcy, but if the price of building a car moves much higher in the second half and sales are off 15% in North American for 2008, the choices may come down to one.

Douglas A. McIntyre