The politics and the science argue that this fall we’re not going to see a repeat of the economic lockdowns put in place in 2020 in an attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus. But it’s also clear that the the current huge surge in infections from the Delta variant that is threatening to push hospitals in some states to “failure” in the words of one health official in Mississippi will slow the U.S. economy.
What investors want to know is By how much?”
We’re coming off of a second quarter earnings season that saw year over year earnings growth near historic highs and where a historically large percentage of Standard & Poor’s companies reporting earnings to date have delivered big upside surprises.
But will the Delta variant surge lead to lower than expected revenue and earnings in the third quarter as consumers pull back? It’s an important question with stocks near all-time highs.
Right now it looks like U.S airlines might be the early “canary in a coal mine” indicator of danger. (In the dark as a dungeon days of mining, miners would sometimes carry caged canaries with them into the tunnels. The birds would die from mine gases that the miners themselves hadn’t yet detected. Which was hard on the canaries, of course, but offered the miners a warning to get the hell out of the tunnel in fresher air.)
On Wednesday of this week, Southwest Airlines (LUV), the nation’s fourth-largest domestic carrier, said it is seeing weaker bookings in August amid a jump in coronavirus infections. The airline said if Delta variant caseloads remain elevated, that downward demand trend is likely to extend into September.
This is an abrupt reversal since Southwest and other domestic airlines had earlier reported that passenger numbers and fares for the summer season were running above July 2019 levels. In June and July many airlines had announced plans to increase hiring.
In a filing Wednesday with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Southwest said “the Company has recently experienced a deceleration in close-in bookings and an increase in close-in trip cancellations in August 2021, which are believed to be driven by the recent rise in COVID-19 cases associated with the Delta variant.” Southwest is the second U.S. airline to warn about a decline in bookings. Last week Frontier Airlines last week said it was seeing a decline in bookings. “The impact of the Delta variant on bookings, and the duration of that impact, are difficult to predict,” Frontier said in a quarterly report. The airline said it expects, at best, to break even in the third quarter.
The Post reported that, according to Airlines for America, the industry’s largest trade group, U.S. passenger volume is 17% below pre-pandemic levels. The Post also reported that the Transportation Security Administration, which had been seeing a big increase in the number of passengers going through airport screenings, on Tuesday screened just over 1.7 million passengers at U.S. airport security checkpoints. That’s the lowest total since June 15.