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Avoid Travel Stocks for Now

Zacks

By travel stocks I mean hotel stocks like Marriott MAR, Hilton HLT and Wyndham Worldwide, online hotel booking companies like Priceline PCLN and Expedia EXPE, recommendation sites like TripAdvisor and other players facilitating or indirectly involved in the travel business.

The segment has suffered the brunt of terror attacks, Brexit uncertainties and the stronger dollar, which combined to contain hotel demand for much of the year. The question, then, is whether the weakness will continue (for these or other reasons), or is it time to look beyond these issues to more positive indicators perhaps?

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Another segment that benefits from travel demand is airlines and as it turns out, companies like Southwest LUV, American Airlines AAL, Jet Blue JBLU and Delta also share the terror and Brexit issues. They are also saddled with rising labor costs and declining air fares.

Low oil prices have been a positive, however — on the one hand increasing consumer disposable income, and on the other supporting airlines profitability. It’s a different matter that capacity additions seem high in response to the rising demand, which is impacting air fares.

Disappointing Metrics

STR data for October 2016 indicates that occupancy rates are down In Europe, Middle East and Central/South America. Asia and the U.S. were flattish.

As far as the average daily rate (ADR, or "pricing") is concerned, there were declines everywhere except in the Americas.

Revenue per average room (revPAR) also wasn’t encouraging, declining in Europe, Middle East and Central/South America but flattish in Asia and up 1.9% in the U.S.

From the above, it appears that the domestic market is the best place to search for growth. But according to STR’s updated outlook for 2016 and 2017, things could be turning for the worse. The firm says that while growth in supply and demand will be in equilibrium in 2016 at 1.6%, demand will decelerate slightly to 1.5% next year with supply accelerating to 2.0%.

The occupancy rate will go from flat to down 0.5%. The supply-demand mismatch will also impact pricing for hoteliers. As a result, ADR growth will go from 3.1% to 2.8%, also impacting the RevPAR.

The numbers indicate that demand is not about to get stronger. And indeed, 2017 estimates for some hoteliers are trending down. Mariott for example saw a 6-cent decline in the last 30 days, with Hilton down 8 cents and Expedia down 18 cents. Other estimates can also start trending down in the coming days.

Is It All Bad News?

While growth isn’t expected to accelerate in the near term, the domestic market and China/Asia are likely to be moderately positive. So people already invested in the space may want to hang on. Here’s some more data that investors with a longer investment horizon may cheer at.

According to Director General and CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Alexandre de Juniac, “September’s growth in passenger demand was healthy. Importantly, this rebound from August weakness suggests that travel demand is showing its resilience in the aftermath of terror attacks.

"We must, of course, be ever-alert to the ongoing terror threat. And overall the industry is still vulnerable to being buffeted by rising geopolitical tensions, protectionist political agendas, and weak economic fundamentals. This will still be a good year for the airline industry’s performance, but our profitability will continue to be hard-won.”

Investors can find opportunities in both the fastest growing countries of China and India.

In China, there is a restriction on foreign ownership of aircraft and airports. But investment opportunity exists as parts suppliers to aircraft companies and designers of airports according to Dezan Shira and Associates.

The opportunity in India is opening up with the Modi government publishing the country’s first-ever Civil Aviation Policy allowing the privatization of airlines and up to 100% FDI in Indian airlines companies among other things. But the segment is necessarily heavily regulated because of its relation to national security and also heavily taxed. There is also mounting pressure for India to join the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that seeks to get member countries to offset the environmental impact of future air traffic growth. India has managed to stay out of this to date, if it decides to join, there can be cost escalation.

Travel can be for both business and leisure although a recent study from Priceline says that people are generally more open to mix the two these days, i.e. extend the business trip to enjoy the destination.

Also, McKinsey finds that business travel in Asia is rather different from other parts of the world. The world’s biggest business travel market with a 38% share worth a trillion dollars in annual spending is characterized by greater choice to individual travelers.

On the basis of a survey of 2,500 business travelers in China, India, Indonesia, Japan and Singapore and interviews of 19 corporate-travel managers, the study finds that 69% of respondents are able to choose their airlines, either from a preapproved list or without restrictions of which 11% have no constraints on either provider or price. Similarly, 74% of respondents said they have the same degree of freedom in picking a hotel, of which 9% said they have no restrictions whatsoever.

On the other hand, companies at times incentivize employees to accept cheaper travel options. So the distinction between business and leisure type travel is less evident here. Business travelers in Asia generally prefer convenience over all else and are therefore very inclined to order online using mobile devices and through online booking agents.

According to the latest Visa-sponsored GBTA BTI Outlook – China 2016 H1, China has overtaken the U.S. as the largest business travel market in the world. Moreover, it is also one of the fastest growing (10.1% growth in 2016 followed by 9.8% growth in 2017). Domestic spend is 95% of total spend. The report also mentions the estimated U.S. growth rate for 2016 of 1.9%.

The GBTA BTI Outlook – India report says that the country is currently the 10th largest business travel market in the world, forecasted to grow 10.7% this year and 10.2% in 2017 and assume the sixth position by 2019. Domestic spending will grow 11.5% and 10.3% in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Outbound travel will be slower, growing a respective 3.1% and 9.0%.

According to the Visa-sponsored GBTA BTI Outlook – Western Europe, the region will see 6.3% growth in 2016 followed by 6.8% growth in 2017. Germany leads the region and in addition to the UK, will see higher growth rates.

Summing Up

The travel market has few good opportunities at the moment (Instead see: the complete list of today’s Zacks #1 Rank (Strong Buy) stocks here). But it isn’t all doom and gloom either. If you’re in the segment for the longer-term, it makes sense to hold on. But this isn’t the time to make fresh investments and a wait-and-see approach to Asian opportunities may be a good idea.

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