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Boeing’s sales fall as company delivers fewest jets since 2014

In this Friday, March 31, 2017, file photo, Boeing employees walk the new Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner down toward the delivery ramp area at the company's facility in South Carolina after conducting its first test flight at Charleston International Airport in North Charleston, S.C. (Mic Smith / Associated Press)
In this Friday, March 31, 2017, file photo, Boeing employees walk the new Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner down toward the delivery ramp area at the company's facility in South Carolina after conducting its first test flight at Charleston International Airport in North Charleston, S.C. (Mic Smith / Associated Press)
By Julie Johnsson Bloomberg

Boeing’s sales slumped as the U.S. planemaker delivered the fewest jetliners in three years, ahead of the impending debut of a new version of the company’s best-selling plane.

Revenue fell 7.3 percent to $21 billion in the first quarter, about $200 million less than analysts had estimated. Weak sales overshadowed a surprise gain in free cash flow as the manufacturer kept costs in check and started to reap a long-awaited payoff from the 787 Dreamliner.

The report spotlighted Boeing’s need to tamp down costs and make its factories more efficient as it girds for a slowing aerospace market. While the Chicago-based manufacturer raised its forecast for 2017 earnings because of improved tax expectations, it didn’t boost the cash outlook — a crucial number for investors as aircraft orders fade late in a sales cycle that began more than a decade ago.

“’The stock has been a high flier for a while,” George Ferguson, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, said Wednesday. “People clearly had high expectations and this was a middling report.”

The shares dipped 1.5 percent to $180.73 before the start of regular trading in New York. Boeing rose 18 percent this year through Tuesday, the third largest gain among the 30 members of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

The manufacturer plans to cut output of the 777, long its second-largest source of profit, for a second time later this year. The 787 Dreamliner should help dull some of the pain and Boeing will also gain as initial deliveries start next month for the 737 Max, the newest member of its most profitable jet family, Ferguson said.

Deferred production costs for the 787 fell $316 million to $27 billion from the previous quarter. The balance of deferred costs has started to shrink with each 787 that rolls out of Boeing’s factories. It represents the money the company sank into inventory and manpower after the Dreamliner entered the market three years late following a series of production and supply-chain breakdowns.

Boeing has promised a steep improvement in cash and savings from the Dreamliner as it refines the plane’s manufacturing process, builds more higher-margin models like the 787-9 and no longer has to compensate customers for late deliveries. The marquee aircraft, with a frame made of spun carbon-fiber, emerged as a money maker for Boeing last year after a decade of losses.

First-quarter free cash flow of $1.63 billion contrasted with the average analyst estimate that the planemaker would consume $137 million during what’s typically the company’s slowest period. Boeing delivered 169 commercial jets, the fewest since the first quarter of 2014, as it began to stockpile 737 Max jets ahead of the initial delivery of the upgraded narrow-body next month.

First-quarter earnings adjusted for pension expenses were $2.01 a share, the company said Wednesday in statement. That compared to the $1.91 average of analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

For the full year, the company forecast adjusted earnings of $9.20 to $9.40 a share, up from a previous estimate of $9.10 to $9.30, mainly because of a reduction in the expected tax rate.

“Although we don’t see investors giving Boeing much credit for a tax-driven EPS ‘beat and raise,’ we would expect there to be a positive response to the solid cash-flow performance in the first quarter, given historic seasonality,” Robert Stallard, an aerospace analyst with Vertical Research Partners, said in a report to clients.

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