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Boeing's cash surges as 737 Max fuels record jet deliveries

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Boeing's cash flow swelled as the company's 737 Max propelled jetliner deliveries to a record in the third quarter.

[CHICAGO] Boeing's cash flow swelled as the company's 737 Max propelled jetliner deliveries to a record in the third quarter.

The manufacturer handed over 25 more of its narrow-body planes than a year earlier, the result of a faster production tempo and the smooth debut of the upgraded 737 Max after an engine hiccup in May. That helped boost free cash flow to US$3 billion, topping analysts' estimates.

The results fulfilled Wall Street's expectations for a relatively muted quarter after Boeing's previous earnings report pushed the shares to the biggest gain in more than eight years.

On Wednesday, the Chicago-based planemaker broke out the financial performance of a newly created services business for the first time, leaving investors and analyst to puzzle over the details.

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"The introduction of the new division has made the situation a bit murkier than usual," Robert Stallard, analyst with Vertical Research Partners, said in a note to clients, "but the overall result is very close to our expectations with only a small change to the full year guidance."

Boeing has emerged as a Wall Street darling this year by speeding its factories to capitalise on a seven-year order backlog, while largely avoiding the aircraft-development headaches that have plagued rival Airbus SE.

Boeing's success, partially marred by a delay-prone tanker the company is building for the US Air Force, has pushed shares to this year's biggest gain on the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

The shares fell less than one per cent to US$264.55 at 9.56 am in New York. Through the close on Tuesday, the stock had skyrocketed 71 per cent this year - more than triple the average gain posted by members of the Dow.

Earnings adjusted for certain pension expenses slid to US$2.72 a share from a year earlier when the company recorded a one-time tax benefit, Boeing said in a statement. The result exceeded the US$2.65 average estimate of analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. Sales of US$24.3 billion were also better than analysts predicted.

Surging 737 deliveries helped Boeing set a record of 202 jetliner shipments during the quarter. The higher shipments added about US$1 billion to revenue and US$150 million to earnings, said George Ferguson, aerospace analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence.

Even so, sales fell for the company's main commercial aircraft division, raising concern about the planemaker's ability to soften the blow from slower 777 production as Boeing moves to an upgraded model by decade's end.

"For the number of airplanes they delivered, I really would've expected a better pop," Mr Ferguson said.

"It's not a blockbuster quarter, it's OK."

During a conference call scheduled for 10.30 am Eastern time, Boeing chief executive officer Dennis Muilenburg is expected to field questions on the results, as well as last week's bombshell announcement that Airbus is acquiring a controlling stake in Bombardier's C Series aircraft.

Boeing continues to reap more cash from its 787 Dreamliners as it reduces the balance of inventory and factory costs amassed after the carbon-fiber jet debuted more than three years late in 2011.

So-called deferred production costs fell US$513 million during the quarter to US$25.9 billion.

The pace of savings on the Dreamliner had been expected to slow after Boeing in July increased the accounting quantity used to calculate profit and loss.

The company has been working on thousands of tips from employees and suppliers to refine the plane's manufacturing process, and expects profit to climb as it mainly builds the higher-margin 787-9 and 787-10 variants.

The results provided the first look at Boeing Global Services, a new division that combines data analytics, maintenance, spare parts and other services previously offered separately by Boeing commercial and defense divisions. Sales in the quarter were US$3.67 billion, up 2 per cent, while the unit reported an operating margin of 14.2 per cent.

Mr Muilenburg sees the new business as a counterweight to the commercial aircraft business, which accounts for more than half of total revenue and is prone to global macro-economic shocks. He has set a target of growing sales of the services operation to US$50 billion within the next five to 10 years.

Revenue for Boeing's core jetliner business fell one per cent from to US$14.9 billion, despite record deliveries of 202 aircraft in the quarter. Operating profit rose 15 per cent to US$1.48 billion. Defence sales fell 5 per cent to US$5.47 billion, while operating profit dipped one per cent to US$559 million.

The growing tab to build the first 18 tankers for the US Air Force, months past their scheduled August due date, weighed on results for both commercial and defence.

Costs for the KC-46 program climbed US$329 million in the quarter as Boeing grappled with refueling issues, such as scrapes on aircraft and radio interference.

Boeing raised its outlook for 2017 as its financial performance came into sharper view. The manufacturer now expects core profit of US$9.90 to US$10.10 - 10 US cents more than it forecast in July. Operating cash flow is expected to be US$12.5 billion, compared with a previous target of US$12.25 billion.

The aerospace company also trimmed research and development spending by US$200 million and lowered its tax rate 50 basis points to 28.5 per cent, "so this would suggest no change to the operating forecast," Vertical Research's Stallard said.

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