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Aviation finance is proving its resilience amid a cooling global economy. Our survey finds that senior executives in the sector are optimistic that global levels of aircraft financing will increase in 2020

Introduction

Despite the volatility that has affected the overall economy, the aviation industry has weathered the storms. Indeed, sector financing is set to grow, though there could be regional differences according to Justin BensonAdrian BeasleySimon CollinsChristian HansenMichael Smith and Richard Smith, partners of global law firm White & Case

Despite many of the global economy's warning signals flashing red, the prospects for the aviation finance sector appear undimmed. The aviation industry as a whole has demonstrated remarkable levels of resilience amid the uncertainty and volatility of recent years, with continued passenger growth offsetting a moderate decline in air cargo traffic during 2019. Financing has grown in lockstep with the industry and is expected to continue to do so. For example, Boeing predicts the value of global aviation finance will rise to US$181 billion by 2023, up from US$126 billion in 2018.

Our new survey of the aviation finance market suggests these types of forecasts may be realistic. The airlines and capital providers whose views it summarizes expect investment in aviation to continue growing, with a corresponding increase in financing activity. Although challenges certainly may lie ahead, including the deteriorating outlook for the global economy, optimism still prevails in this market. In particular, the increasing diversity of funding sources may provide some protection against setbacks in any one area.

That said, this report also identifies significant differences in sentiment by geography. In broad terms, respondents based in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region are considerably more likely to have positive views of the outlook for 2020, while those based in North America and—in particular—Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) are less upbeat.

Clearly, while this is a global industry, with capital flowing freely across borders, there is no escaping the regional economic context. As European and North American economies seemingly move toward a period of slower growth—or outright recession if the most pessimistic predictions are confirmed—Asian markets may offer some respite, despite also being expected to slow.

This report focuses on both the global picture and these geographical nuances. We consider the outlook for investments in the aviation sector, and we survey the funding landscape that will support these investments. Our report also focuses on liquidity, airline consolidation and mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity, while highlighting opportunities and risks facing this industry in 2020 and beyond.
   

Methodology

In the fourth quarter of 2019, White & Case, in partnership with Mergermarket, surveyed 100 senior-level executives at entities that have either financed or invested in the aviation industry in the past three years. The aim of the survey was to analyze sentiment regarding aviation finance. Organizations surveyed included airlines, operating lessors, banks, export credit agencies, private equity and other alternative capital providers. Job titles included CEO, CFO, director level and heads of investment.

 

“The aviation industry as a whole has demonstrated remarkable levels of resilience amid the uncertainty and volatility of recent years”

Overall investment outlook for global aviation finance

Our exclusive survey of senior executives who have financed the aviation industry in the past three years reveals that the overall investment outlook for the sector is bright, with one region in particular set for larger growth than its global equivalents

airplane engine

Funding sources

The multiplicity of financing sources such as asset-backed security, insurance and leasing companies has been crucial for the sector. In this section, we reveal the origins and sources of expected funding in 2020

airport runway

Liquidity and refinancing

Despite the sector's current strong performance, many survey respondents believe the industry needs even more capital and liquidity. In addition, most expect restructurings and insolvencies to increase in 2020

airplane windows

Winds of change

Economic volatility, political unrest and fierce competition are all seen as major challenges to the sector in the coming 12 to 18 months. Meanwhile, respondents are preparing for rising oil prices and growing industry consolidation

airplane landing

Conclusion

We explore key takeaways from our exclusive survey and what they could mean for the aviation industry and aviation finance

flying airplane
airplane windows

Liquidity and refinancing

Despite the sector's current strong performance, many survey respondents believe the industry needs even more capital and liquidity. In addition, most expect restructurings and insolvencies to increase in 2020

Insight
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9 min read

The robust funding environment and expectations of increased investment reflect the aviation industry's strong aggregate performance. In large parts of the sector, both liquidity and capital remain unconstrained, not least in an era of historically low financing costs.

However, this rosy picture is far from universal. Many airlines have reported significant liquidity issues in recent months, and airline insolvencies have been frequent, taking place in all three regions covered by this research.

In APAC every single respondent said they had opened new lines of credit or other debt facilities in the past year.

More than two-thirds of survey respondents (67%) believe the aviation finance sector is now short of the capital and liquidity it currently requires. That rises to 80% in APAC, and majorities in both EMEA and North America agree. "We just do not have enough given the growing demand for funding," says the Director of M&A at a North American leasing company. "Growth has increased in line with economic growth, but other issues have restricted finance providers' ability to meet the demand."


67%
of respondents believe the aviation finance sector is now short of the capital and liquidity it currently requires

This result may be surprising, considering the wide availability of cheap financing in recent years. During this period, airlines have been paying minimal margins on their capital. Nonetheless, banks have continued to operate in the market, indicating that rates of return in other sectors remain low.

The good news for airlines is that, despite the darkening global economic outlook, the near-term availability of financing does not look set to decline significantly in most parts of the world. Only in the EMEA region do less than half of respondents expect capital liquidity in the aviation finance sector to improve during 2020.

Europe's current difficulties—facing ongoing political turmoil (with Brexit to be negotiated and other uncertainties) as well as economic difficulties in France and Germany, the leading lights of the eurozone—are no doubt to blame. Particularly in APAC, but also in North America, expectations for funding over the year ahead are much more bullish.

Still, respondents would like to see the pace of improvement quicken. "It will take some time: Factors such as Brexit, the trade war and fuel shortages will all come into the picture," says the Director of Finance at a North American airline.

Historically low interest rates continue to offer the sector a golden opportunity to reduce its financing costs. While interest rates had been expected to begin rising in the US, the US Federal Reserve actually cut the cost of borrowing three times over the course of 2019—and some analysts think further reductions could be possible during 2020. In the UK, the eurozone and Japan, policymakers appear to be no closer to returning to more normal rates.

Many aviation sector borrowers have already taken advantage of this climate by seeking to refinance existing debt at lower rates. At a global level, 83% of respondents report having done this over the past 12 months, with nearly half of that number having refinanced significant amounts of their debt.


84%
of EMEA-based respondents expect airline restructurings and insolvencies to increase in 2020

This trend will likely continue in 2020—and, if anything, accelerate. 85% of respondents expect to refinance at least some amount of existing debt in the next year. In every region surveyed, a larger proportion of respondents anticipate refinancing "significant amounts" of borrowing rather than "moderate to low amounts."

In addition, many in the airline sector report that they either took on new borrowing during this remarkable period for interest rates or plan to do so over the next year.

In APAC every single respondent said they had opened new lines of credit or other debt facilities in the past year—and almost all expected to take on further new borrowing during 2020. The appetite for additional borrowing was slightly more muted in North America and EMEA in the past year, but demand for debt is now set to increase in both regions. Not only do North America and EMEA respondents expect to take on new debt in greater amounts during 2020, but also more of them intend to add significantly to their borrowing facilities.

Other financing avenues will be important, too. For instance, there is a large tax leasing market in the APAC region, which is typically more active than the region's ABS market.

In some cases, the desire to refinance and take on fresh debt reflects an opportunity to further improve one's balance sheet from a position of strength. In other cases, though, it reflects the difficult circumstances many airlines find themselves in, with other airline failures likely in 2020. Some airline business models do not leave a lot of room for error. The low-cost carrier model, for instance, has come under some pressure, and many do not have a lot of cushion in case of unexpected developments.

Overall, two-thirds of respondents (67%) expect airline restructurings and insolvencies to increase over the year ahead. EMEA-based respondents are especially downcast, with 84% predicting a more difficult year in this regard. By contrast, only 53% of respondents in APAC say the same. The European market is particularly open and fragmented with exceptional levels of competition, all of which make it challenging to sustain profitability.

The Managing Director of a North American private equity firm says more restructuring is inevitable. "Changes in the global environment have taken a toll on many sectors, and aviation is no exception," the executive says. "Mergers, strategic partnerships and restructurings are all increasing as airlines try to strengthen their operations and reduce costs."

"There will be an increase in insolvencies during 2020 as profit margins fall," the Senior Director of Strategy at a North American airline adds.

 

 

This publication is provided for your convenience and does not constitute legal advice. This publication is protected by copyright.
© 2020 White & Case LLP

 

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