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Let the air out

28 January 2021 By Lauren Silva Laughlin

Even seemingly good news isn’t likely to help American Airlines. The $10 billion company’s shares surged as much as 60% in premarket trading on Thursday after it received a mention on a public forum that has fueled dramatic gains for companies like retailer GameStop. Ideally American, struggling from the coronavirus fallout, could issue equity at its pumped-up valuation. But the phenomenon might be too fleeting to take advantage.

Until Thursday, the Texas-based company had been least loved among its publicly traded peers, at least as far as investors are concerned. It was the most-shorted U.S. carrier, according to Reuters. That attracted attention on Reddit’s WallStreetBets forum. Amateur traders who by Wednesday evening had helped the shares of GameStop rise more than 20-fold this month piled in, pushing up American’s stock too. Trading platforms including Robinhood restricted activity on Thursday, deflating premarket gains.

As with GameStop the market activity, a contest of sorts between retail investors and short-selling hedge funds, is unrelated to the airline’s underlying value. American said on Thursday that revenue fell 64% in its fourth quarter compared with the same quarter the previous year. It now has government backing with some $16.5 billion of loans, and it burned through $30 million of cash every day in the final quarter of 2020. Rival Southwest Airlines anticipates its cash burn to worsen, partly because of seasonal effects on travel but also because of rising oil prices.

American Chief Executive Doug Parker addressed the question of its share price three times on American’s earnings call, saying the company has authority to issue $118 million in shares based on previously announced plans. He wouldn’t be drawn on whether an offering was in the cards.

The Securities and Exchange Commission is also keeping an eye on the situation. And last summer the regulator didn’t like car-rental outfit Hertz Global trying to take advantage of an unexpectedly high stock price, although the company was in bankruptcy, a different situation.

Parker faces the added sensitivity that comes from the government being a stakeholder of sorts in the business, too. If it held up for long enough, an inflated stock price would make selling shares more appealing. With the market forces at work at present, though, that’s a very big “if.”


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