Southwest stock flies high

By Scott Cendrowski, reporter

(Fortune Magazine) -- Southwest is beating the air travel slump. The biggest U.S. discount airline surprised investors in January by posting earnings of $74 million (before one-time charges) after lower jet fuel prices made up for cheaper ticket prices.

Southwest's stock has returned 50% in the past year, beating both the S&P 500's rise and global airlines' 28% gain.

Jim Corridore (left), equity analyst at Standard & Poor's, and Helane Becker, analyst at Jesup & Lamont

Amid expectations of a fragile air travel recovery in 2010, can Southwest (LUV, Fortune 500) shares continue climbing?

Bull: Jim Corridore, equity analyst, Standard & Poor's

Southwest can grow traffic when the rest of the U.S. airline industry is hunkered down and trying to survive. Domestic and leisure travel -- Southwest's sweet spot -- will recover faster in 2010 than international and business travel. And in the past several months, more people have been flying. Domestic travel was down about 20% in the fall; December is likely to be down only 4%. That's a clear improvement and should continue.

In 2009, Southwest moved unprofitable routes to better markets like Denver and Chicago, where they are now seeing strong demand. Overall capacity in the industry has been reduced. As soon as demand starts to really meaningfully improve, there's going to be a good deal of pricing power, not just at Southwest, but across the industry. We think that sometime in the first half of this year we should start to see some meaningful improvement and the second half of the year should be good for demand.

And should oil rise sharply, two-thirds of Southwest's jet fuel prices in 2010 are hedged.

The stock trades in the middle of its historical P/E range, at 23 times our earnings estimate of 50 cents a share for 2010. Sure, it's a premium to other airlines. But that's warranted: Southwest has been profitable for 36 consecutive years. These stocks tend to move very quickly once investors get into the story. We think Southwest can rise to $14 in the next year.

Bear: Helane Becker, analyst, Jesup & Lamont

Southwest isn't adding new capacity this year, yet the stock is trading at almost 30 times our 2010 earnings estimate -- and that's assuming fairly aggressive profits since our estimate is above other analysts'.

LUV is a high-quality, well-managed company, but I can't justify a 30 multiple on a company that's not growing. The market's saying that Southwest is a growth company. It's not. Revenue may increase in 2010 by about 2%. We think the stock can drop to $4 in the next six months to a year.

We just feel airlines can sell at 8 to 10 times earnings. But I'm willing to give LUV a premium to the space. So if American (AMR, Fortune 500) or Delta (DAL, Fortune 500) should sell at 8 times earnings, I think these guys should sell at 10. I'm even willing to push the multiple to 12 or 14 because it's a high-quality company with a fairly good balance sheet. But even there, if you use a 14 multiple, the only way you get to $11 for the stock is if it's earning $1 a share. I can't remember the last time Southwest did that, and to earn $1 a share on an after-tax basis, they would have to earn $740 million.

Capacity is flat. Traffic is up. Pricing has improved. That's what the market is focused on. But Southwest has some headwinds that the market is ignoring. It's overhauling its computer system to handle international travel and paying higher airport costs, like other airlines, because travel is down.

And because Southwest does not serve Canada or any other international market, a double-dip recession in the U.S. would be a negative. To top of page