Oil's recent plunge could result in a transfer of wealth from the pockets of big oil companies to those of big airliners. According to one top analyst, investors looking to cash in on that phenomenon should keep a keen eye on the airlines, and their capital return plans, for the rest of the year.
prices fell on Friday but still finished the week higher by 9 percent on the back of fear over unrest in Yemen and the Middle East. Even with this week's pop though, oil is still down more than 50 percent from highs reached in June of 2014.
In a research note earlier this month, Wolfe Research senior airline analyst Hunter Keay outlined the impact of falling crude prices on big oil companies and airlines, calling the phenomenon "the oil wealth cash transfer."
"We expect U.S. airlines to return $9.9 billion to shareholders this year, up from $4.6 billion in 2014, facilitated by good fundamentals and the likely cash windfall from lower oil prices," he wrote.
Airlines to Big Oil: Thanks a bunch!
Lower fuel costs have led to an influx of cash for the airlines. That windfall, according to Keay, is coming directly from the pockets of big oil companies like Exxon Mobil and Chevron, which have suffered as oil revenues dwindle.
In an interview on CNBC's "Fast Money" this week, Keay tracked the cuts in Exxon Mobil's buyback plan and compared them to moves made by American Airlines in the latest quarter.
"We noticed that Exxon Mobil cut its buyback to about $1 billion a quarter, which is almost the exact same amount that American bought back in the fourth quarter," he said.
In its fourth quarter earnings release, Exxon said it was cutting its buyback plan by more than $2 billion for the first quarter. Vice President of Investor Relations Jeff Woodbury said on the earnings call that despite the change, the company remains "committed to our investment program and of course paying our growing dividend."
Exxon Mobil isn't alone in revising its share repurchase plan. Chevron said in its latest earnings release that it's suspending its buybacks for all of 2015. The company's CFO said on the earnings call that the decision was based on the "change in market conditions."
Keay told "Fast Money" that the market hasn't yet priced in the potential upside from increased airline buybacks. "The market is not valuing these airline stocks properly at all given the fall in oil prices," he said. "These airlines are just taking that money and turning around and buying back stocks with it."
In addition to American Airlines, Keay said he also expects Delta to increase its share repurchase plan. He named Spirit Airlines, United Continental, and American as his top picks in the space.
Tim Seymour of Triogem Asset Management says he liked American Airlines as an investment. "I think this is a case of a company that's underperformed a little bit. There's probably more capacity, there's probably more leverage in the multiple as the cycle expands a little bit," he said.