GOL Staying Grounded for Now

06/14/2011 3:43 pm EST

Focus: STOCKS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

Shares of GOL Linhas Aereas Inteligentes (GOL) continue to close in on the June 29, 2010 low at $11.72. Even yesterday’s solid report on May traffic couldn’t keep the stock of Brazil’s low-cost airline out of the red.

Today, of course, the stock is up on the global bounce, but I’m not sure how long that will last.

Traffic climbed by 12.7% in May, GOL reported yesterday, June 13. The company recorded 2.44 billion revenue-passenger kilometers in May, up from 2.17 billion in May 2010. (A revenue-passenger kilometer is calculated by multiplying the number of paying passengers by the number of kilometers flown.)

GOL’s load factor—the percentage of available seats that are occupied—climbed to 62.9% in May, from 57.9% in May 2010.

The problem for GOL—as for all the world’s airlines—is higher fuel prices. In announcing its first-quarter financial results on May 10, GOL told investors to expect lower operating margins due to higher fuel costs.

Revenue for the quarter climbed by 9.6%, on a 7.4% increase in passengers and an improvement in the airline’s load factor to 72.4% from 70.2%. But operating margins fell to 10.2%, from 11.1%, as fuel costs climbed by 21% and labor costs rose by 26%.

As of the end of the quarter, the company had hedged 23% of estimated fuel consumption for the next year at $98.84 a barrel. (The company also announced 1,100 job cuts in the quarter.) Excluding fuel, GOL has done a good job in controlling costs, with cost per available seat kilometer falling on a year-to-year basis for each of the last six quarters.

Part of GOL’s plans for future cost savings includes flying an increasingly standardized fleet of Boeing 737 aircraft (following the Southwest Airlines (LUV) model). To that end, the company has been subleasing or selling non-standard aircraft in its 111-airplane fleet.

With the Brazilian economy still slowing from interest-rate increases, as the central bank fights to reduce inflation, it’s hard to pick a turnaround point for Brazilian stocks.

But remember that owning GOL is a long-term play on the growth of the Brazilian middle class. (In addition, Brazil hosts the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016.)

Historically, bus travel has dominated the Brazilian long-distance passenger travel market. But in 2010—for the first time—more people flew (66 million) than took the bus (49 million), according to Morningstar.

And Brazil’s air travel market still has a long way to grow—annual enplanements per person are still just 0.5, compared to 2.4 in the United States.

GOL is cheap at the current share price, but I think investors will need to be patient. A reasonable one-year target price is $16, but I’d only recommend these shares right now for investors able to tolerate what could still be six months of volatility—much of it, potentially, to the downside.

I’m doing some catch up on this stock. I added GOL to the Jubak Picks 50 long-term portfolio on January 18, but this is the first time I’ve had an opportunity to explain why in detail or to actually add it to the portfolio. (Explanations of the other sells and buys are coming your way soon.)

Full disclosure: I don’t own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this column in my personal portfolio. The mutual fund I manage, Jubak Global Equity Fund (JUBAX), may or may not now own positions in any stock mentioned in this column. The fund did own shares of GOL as of the end of March. For a full list of the stocks in the fund as of the end of March, see the fund’s portfolio here.

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