Boeing suppliers taking off

Several key parts providers look even better than the aerospace giant, with some of the best mutual funds already on board.

By Jan 20, 2012 12:43PM

Image: Paper airplane made of money (© Tetra Images/Corbis)By Igor Greenwald,

Maybe the housing market has hit bottom. Maybe it's up-and-away for long-suffering banks. Maybe . . . the truth is no one really knows, and bets in those sectors remain as risky as they are potentially lucrative.

Investors seeking better visibility with plenty of rewards still in place could look instead to aerospace suppliers with inexpensive stocks that have held up well during recent market turbulence.

Demand for commercial airplanes held up surprisingly well last year, stoked by growth in emerging markets and the clamor all over for newer planes that burn less fuel.

Europe's Airbus notched record orders last year, surpassing Boeing (BA). But the U.S. champion looks set to nose ahead this year and beyond based on its expanding lead in long-haul wide-body jets and stepped-up production of its single-aisle 737 workhorse.

Boeing's commercial sales backlog grew to $273 billion in the third quarter, equivalent to roughly seven years' sales at the current pace. But orders come and orders go -- more telling is the steady ramp in the production rate for the 737s at Boeing's Renton, Washington plant, from 31.5 a month last year to 35 as of now, and plans to get to 42 monthly by 2014.

The brightening prospects haven't been lost on investors, who've propelled Boeing shares 20% higher over the last two months, albeit still $5 shy of the $80 peak notched in May.

Boeing's sizable military business remains at risk given likely defense cuts, and the increased production carries extra costs that have weighed on this year's earnings estimates. At 15 times projected earnings, the stock is hardly cheap, though it does offer a decent 2.3% yield.

Better deals are on offer among some of Boeing's suppliers, which seem to be growing faster and are generally cheaper. For example, diversified industrial supplier Crane (CR), which makes landing gear hydraulics and electronics, alongside vending machines and composite plastics for RVs, has seen sales rise 17% over the last year, versus less than 5% for Boeing.

The stock is priced at 13 times projected 2012 earnings, and yields 2.1%. It has outperformed BA by ten percentage points over the last year, and seems to be pulling away: it's up better than 7% year-to-date, versus just 2% for Boeing.

Spirit Aerosystems (SPR), the Boeing spinoff that still supplies fuselage sections for just about every Boeing plane, is up nearly 10% year-to-date, yet still sells for less than 11 times its forward estimated earnings. Despite a superior growth rate, the stock is cheaper than Boeing's on a cash flow basis.

Triumph Group (TGI) makes fuselage sections for the Boeing 747 and is a supplier for the new 787 as well; those widebodies are expected to sell especially well in the coming years while Airbus develops a competing product.

Triumph shares sell for a bit more than 11 times forward earnings, and have outperformed Boeing's by ten percentage points over the last six months and 20 percentage points in a year.

I'm obviously not alone in appreciating these stocks' upside potential, but am comforted all the same by their popularity with managers of some of the best mutual funds around.

Triumph was the largest year-end holding of the Allianz NFJ Small-Cap Value Fund (PCVAX), which gets five stars from Morningstar after returning nearly 11% annually over the last decade.

The same fund is also a leading investor in Crane alongside the T. Rowe Price Midcap Growth Fund (RPMGX), another Morningstar favorite. And heading up the list of Spirit Aero investors is the extremely well regarded Artisan Midcap Value Investor (ARTQX), which has returned better than 11% annually for a decade.

With such greats sitting in first class, you could do worse than climb aboard with a coach ticket.

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