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The Trade Numerologist: Jet trade takeoff

26 Oct 2017 John Miller

A simmering trade dispute between the US, UK and Canada underscores how the global aviation market has become one of the richest opportunities available to US and European manufacturers, and logistics and shipping firms, with millions of jobs and trillions in revenue at stake over the next 30 years.

Asian countries are driving this growth by fostering thousands of new airline routes and developing aircraft manufacturing capabilities of their own, world trade in aircraft, and the parts to make them.

Total aircraft trade amounted to $350 billion in 2016, up 30% from $270 billion in 2011, according to IHS Markit's Global Trade Atlas.

For decades, US administrations have fought for new markets, and have gone to trade courts to protect its star player, Boeing, against allegedly unfair foreign competition. Its fight against European champion Airbus at the World Trade Organization, a contest over which sides gets more subsidies, has been dragging on since 2004. The US is cheering a recent WTO decision that a $8.7 billion tax incentive program awarded by Washington state was not an illegal subsidy.

Chicago-based Boeing is the biggest plane maker in the world, with profits last year of $5 billion on $96.6 billion in revenues, compared to profits of $1.2 billion on revenues of $79 billion for Airbus.

Both companies have hundreds of major manufacturing plants and suppliers scattered in dozens of countries around the world, but, as an analysis of IHS trade data shows, most of their jobs are still based in the home regions producing their exports.

Top 10 exporters of aircraft and aircraft parts, first 6 months of 2017

US$62.3 billionSingapore$3.3 billion
France$23.5 billionSpain$2.8 billion
Germany$21 billionJapan$2.2 billion
UK$10.7 billionItaly$2.1 billion
Canada$4.8 billionIreland$2.05 billion

The third wheel behind the Airbus-Boeing global duopoly is Canada's Bombardier. Last year, the Montreal-based had earnings of $477 million on revenues of $5.7 billion, and delivered 163 aircrafts.

And Justin Trudeau's administration is eager to carve out markets for Bombardier just as much as US officials are for Boeing, and EU trade diplomats for Airbus.

Thus the ongoing kerfuffle, after the Trump administration hit Bombardier recently with preliminary import tariffs of 300% on jets ordered by Delta. The US and Boeing alleged Bombardier was getting unfair subsidies from the Quebec government. If imposed, the tariffs could triple the price of Delta's jets to around $60 million from around $20 million. A final ruling is due early next year.

Bombardier said the ruling was an "egregious overreach and misapplication of US trade laws". Boeing applauded the ruling, which, it said, confirms that "Bombardier dumped its aircraft into the US market at absurdly low prices."

The UK government, eager to protect a Bombardier plant in Northern Ireland, has warned Boeing that it could lose defense contracts if the US doesn't give up the tariffs. Bombardier has a staff of 4,000 at a factory in East Belfast, where it makes wings and fuselage for a type of plane Bombardier makes for Delta. And Canada has threatened to cancel an order of jets from Boeing.

The US might want to be careful about starting a trade war. Canada and the UK are two of its biggest trading partners in aircraft, accounting for almost $20 billion in imports from the US in 2016.

Top destination for US aircraft exports, 2016

China$14.6 billionUAE$6.5 billion
France$11.2 billionGermany$6 billion
UK$11 billionSouth Korea$5.2 billion
Japan$8 billionBrazil$4.8 billion
Canada$7.6 billionSingapore$4.3 billion

Bombardier's earnings are not a lot compared to the Big Two, but if the EU were a country, Canada would be the world's third biggest aircraft exporter.

In the long run, however, the market they're competing for, as in so many industries, is China. Beijing imports of aircraft and aircraft parts have increased more than ten-fold this century, to $22.8 billion in 2016 from $2.2 billion in 2000. The US is still winning the fight for the Chinese aviation market, ahead of the EU and Canada.

Top 10 sources of Chinese aircraft imports, 2016

US$14.6 billionUK$202 million
Germany$4.1 billionRussia$143.6 million
France$3.9 billionItaly$106.3 million
Canada$484.4 millionSouth Korea$41.6 million
Brazil$373.1 millionSwitzerland$24 million

China itself is slowly getting into the aviation game. Commercial Aviation Corp. of China, or Comac, says it has over 700 orders for its C919 passenger jet. It's not yet considered a threat on world markets to Boeing or Airbus. China needs over 5,000 single-aisle planes in the next 20 years, according to Boeing, and China's safety and technology standards are still behind.

As Comac gains ground, expect global trade flows to be disrupted, but for the rest of this decade and the next, global aircraft trade, and the associated shipping and logistics business, is still Airbus and Boeing's game.

The Trade Numerologist is IHS Markit's unique weekly look at global trade by award-winning journalist John W. Miller, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, using proprietary numbers from IHS Markit's Global Trade Atlas database, the world's most complete and accurate set of trade numbers.

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