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Boeing’s company debt now larger than New Zealand’s after huge bond sale

Boeing rejects government bailout money but takes on $25 billion in new debt to do so

Boeing chief executive David Calhoun at the signing of the trade agreement with China earlier this year at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Boeing has raised $25 billion in a massive debt sale, allowing it to avoid tapping a $17 billion coronavirus bailout fund meant to shore up businesses critical to national security.

The bond sale significantly increases Boeing’s chances of riding out the crisis without direct government support. Turning down the funds means the company will not have to give the government an ownership stake, a requirement that executives had said they wouldn’t accept.

But it also likely means Boeing investors will not get dividends for quite some time as the company pays down its debt. Boeing now has more debt than New Zealand, according to an analysis by Bank of America’s securities division.

Boeing executives said capital markets have improved significantly since the stock market crashed in early March, and that made it easier to sell bonds.

“The robust demand for the offering reflects strong support for the long-term strength of Boeing and the aviation industry,” the company said in a statement. “It is also in part a result of the confidence in the market created by the CARES Act and federal support programs that have been put in place — a testament to the Administration, Congress and the Federal Reserve.”

Federal funds could still filter through to some of the company’s 17,000 suppliers; Boeing has suggested the broader aerospace manufacturing industry should receive at least $60 billion to see it through the crisis. The $17 billion fund for national security businesses saw relatively little interest from public companies due to the conditions that were attached to the funding, a Pentagon official told Reuters this week. Roughly 20 private companies had expressed interest, however.

The private bond sale comes just days after Boeing backed out of a planned $4.2 billion deal to acquire the Brazilian aerospace manufacturer Embraer.

First came the 737 Max crisis, then coronavirus. Can David Calhoun save Boeing?

On Wednesday, Boeing reported it lost $1.7 billion in the first quarter, with revenue of $16.9 billion, a 26 percent decline from the year before. The company reported that costs related to the coronavirus in the Puget Sound region of Washington, the global epicenter of its commercial aircraft production, had cost it roughly $137 million.

It reported that the grounding of the 737 Max had cost it $5 billion. The 737 Max was grounded last March after flawed flight control systems played a role in two deadly crashes that killed 346 people. Executives expect the jet to be ruled safe to fly later this year, although they emphasized that regulators control the timeline.

Thursday’s announcement was a sign of Boeing executives’ determination to ride out the crisis without government support, though that could hasten layoffs at a company that might face a significantly smaller post-crisis demand for its products. The company announced this week that it planned to lay off 10 percent of its global workforce, affecting at least 14,000 jobs.

Boeing chief executive David Calhoun has said repeatedly in recent weeks that the company would weigh all of its financing options, including the private markets. He told Fox Business last month that he had no interest in taxpayer money if it meant the government would take an equity stake. The company, he said, had options elsewhere.

That stance concerned lawmakers from Washington state, who urged Calhoun in a letter to “consider utilizing the economic assistance provided by the Cares Act to safeguard thousands of jobs at Boeing in Washington State and across the country.”

Seven members of the state’s congressional delegation wrote they were “especially troubled” by what they perceived to be Calhoun’s reluctance to take government money as it was shutting down plants.

The company was sitting on some $15 billion in cash after it drew down a $13.8 billion loan earlier this year, which could see it through months of turbulence.

Company officials, however, said recently that Boeing continued to look at several options, including taking government money. Ultimately, though, Calhoun had hoped the company could access enough liquidity to keep it afloat in the private markets, and it appears to have been able to do just that.

The company now has an estimated $40 billion in cash on hand. That could last it well into 2023 if it is able to keep its spending low, said Bloomberg analyst George Ferguson.

Ferguson called the bond sale a smart move that would allow the company to scramble quickly in the event that the 737 Max is deemed safe to fly.

The extra cash “gives them the freedom to make the fundamentally correct decisions for the company and not be worried about the vagaries of cash-flow through the quarters and years,” Ferguson said.

Others said the measures Boeing has implemented so far will not go far enough. Even far into the recovery, Boeing’s airline customers might prefer used jets over pricey new ones.

“I just don’t think they grasp the extent of the global aviation industry’s downturn,” said Teal Group aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia. “This is the sort of thing you do with a two-year story that resembles past downturns, but I just think this is significantly more severe.”