Short Squeeze Alert: Analyzing the Impact of JetBlue's Blocked Acquisition on SAVE Stock

The past few days have proven to be quite turbulent for Spirit Airlines, Inc. (SAVE), with notable fluctuations in its market value. From a federal judge opposing a proposed merger, sending SAVE stock into a nosedive, to David Portnoy investing in and promoting the company on January 18, resulting in SAVE's share price surge – the airline stock garnered significant attention.

The initial blow to the ultra-low-cost carrier's stock unfolded last week when JetBlue Airways Corporation’s (JBLU) $3.8 billion bid to takeover SAVE was thwarted by court intervention. This resulted in a sharp drop of as much as 74% over three days, throwing the fate of the previously secure deal into uncertainty. This drew attention to the mounting question about the survival prospects for SAVE.

Navigating the airline industry presents several complications. The inevitable costs associated with acquiring aircraft and employing relevant staff mount up, especially considering the volatile nature of jet fuel prices. This renders the sector vulnerable to bankruptcy, as demonstrated by prominent airlines, such as Pan Am, and countless smaller entities. Occasionally, airlines can re-emerge post-Chapter 11 restructuring, emulating the revival of American Airlines in 2013.

In other instances, they vanish indefinitely, leaving travelers in the lurch. According to TD Cowen analyst Helene Becker, SAVE may also be at risk.

Additionally, there is fervor among the investment community fueled by a return to bullish attitudes and a robust performance by S&P 500 and Nasdaq in the past year. Such success encourages “get rich quick” mentalities, evidenced by a flood of social media messages advocating for SAVE shares to skyrocket imminently without any factual basis.

Despite this, some analysts do not predict either a bankruptcy or a dramatic escalation for SAVE. Furthermore, the company reaching a book value of $12.06 per share is also not anticipated.

This article sheds light on the latest updates, evaluates SAVE's fundamentals, and provides prospective investors with guidance regarding SAVE's future value.

The Merger

The proposed merger would position JBLU as the fifth-largest airline in the U.S., vigorously contesting long-standing dominators Southwest, American, Delta and United Airlines. With an estimated domestic market share of 10%, it promised to diversify flight options and stimulate industry competition.

The acquisition was conjectured to enhance JBLU's cancellation policy through the planned substitution of SAVE’s non-refundable fares with JBLU’s Passenger Bill of Rights, which ensures an automatic reassessment upon inevitable delays and cancellations. The resultant entity could minimize flight delays and cancellations due to the availability of an expanded fleet and heightened pilot workforce following the merge.

Furthermore, JBLU's route network was expected to broaden, encompassing SAVE's reach in Central and South America and the Caribbean, supplementing its existing local and international destinations.

A federal judge, however, recently blocked the merger, arguing that SAVE's cost-sensitive customer base could be harmed. The court determined that the consolidation would infringe on antitrust law, which is designed to prevent anti-competitive harm to consumers. The decision highlighted a potential decrease in affordable ticket options for price-conscious travelers nationwide.

Concerns were voiced about escalating ticket prices, particularly for low-cost seekers, considering JBLU's previous estimation of a 30% price hike in the absence of SAVE as a competitor.

A surge in SAVE's market value triggered by the proposed merger piqued the interest of arbitrage investors looking to capitalize on price gaps between company equity and the offer price. However, the merger's block prompted investors to withdraw, subsequently depreciating SAVE's stock value.

A joint appeal by JBLU and SAVE against the ruling in hopes of reviving the merger is another interesting twist in the carriers' merger attempt. SAVE's stock price experienced a slight rebound in response to this move.

SAVE's stock witnessed an upward trend after Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy took to Twitter and openly commended SAVE’s value. His proclamation of SAVE as a "mega buy" sparked a late-week rally.

Despite these developments, it seems improbable that the judicial verdict will be overturned. The merger blockage is anticipated to persist. Potential investors should assess SAVE on individual merit and without expectations for the completion of such a corporative action.

Let’s delve deeper into the fundamentals of SAVE.

The airline, with a market cap of approximately $898 million, boasts an extensive workforce numbering over 11,000 employees. The ownership structure of the company shows a mix of roughly 0.5% insiders and about 67.7% institutional holders.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, SAVE has grappled with financial sustainability. Their ticket sales have not seen recovery at the pace anticipated, and several of its planes are being temporarily grounded due to engine problems necessitating inspection and possible replacements. SAVE anticipates an average of 26 grounded aircraft, over 10% of its fleet, during 2024. As a result, Pratt & Whitney engines on numerous Airbus jets could drastically hamper immediate growth predictions for the company.

SAVE raised $419 million through the mortgage of many of its airplanes. However, the future options for raising liquidity seem limited. As per results for the fiscal third quarter that ended September 30, 2023, SAVE's overall operating revenue stood at $1.26 billion, a 6.3% year-over-year decline. The net loss for the quarter was reported at $157.55 million, a 333% rise year-over-year, while net loss per share surged by 336.4% from the year-ago quarter to $1.44.

The precarious liquidity situation at SAVE is hinted at by its quick ratio of 0.69. Its Total Debt/Equity ratio exceeding 500% indicates that for every dollar of equity, the company holds five dollars in debt. This high leverage exposes the company to greater risk while settling its debt.

On December 31, 2023, SAVE's liquidity stood at $1.3 billion, including unrestricted cash and equivalents, short-term investment securities, and $300 million under a revolving credit facility. The company is currently in talks with Pratt & Whitney to negotiate compensation for the geared turbofan engine faults that may provide significant liquidity in the next few years.

While SAVE is not bankrupt and still commands liquidity, they are not without challenges. Their $1.3 billion is barely above their debt due in 2025 – amounting to $1.1 billion, which is slated for restructuring next year.

Given that higher risk-free rates have led to a cooling of corporate debt markets, creating an unfavorable environment for debt refinancing, SAVE's management team must explore severe measures to ensure the corporation’s ongoing viability, especially when the likelihood of the merger being off the table is high.

Credit rating company Fitch has issued a warning regarding the "significant refinancing risk" SAVE is expected to encounter in the coming year due to the $1.1 billion debt owed by its loyalty program, which is due for repayment in September 2025. Although Fitch has maintained a B/Negative credit rating for SAVE's debt, it has encouraged the airline to formulate a near-term strategy to increase liquidity, reduce refinancing risk, and boost profitability to prevent further negative ratings.

Details concerning this scenario are expected to emerge on February 8, 2024, when the company will disclose its 2023 fourth-quarter results.

Despite the challenges, SAVE is optimistic about its future earnings – projecting that total revenue will surpass prior estimations. The airline anticipates its fourth-quarter revenue to come at $1.32 billion, which exceeds the higher benchmarks established in its prior projection. This optimistic outlook is primarily attributed to the robust bookings received during the 2023 year-end travel peak.

The airline also forecasts a fuel cost reduction that would help relieve some revenue pressure and enable increased earnings. Operational costs for the quarter are expected to be lower than predicted, primarily due to decreased fuel expenses driven by improved fuel efficiency, reduced airport costs, and other factors. Additionally, SAVE predicts a significant contraction in its negative margin, foreseeing it to shrink down to between 12% and 13% from the previously anticipated negative margin of up to 19%.

Is SAVE a Worthy Investment?

When a stock encounters difficulties as notable as those faced by SAVE, the conversation invariably turns toward short-squeeze speculation. Despite recent losses, SAVE's share trajectory appears to have rebounded. However, it's plausible that this upward momentum results in more from short-squeeze speculation among retail investors than it does from positive news about the airline itself.

The current high level of short interest in SAVE stock further buttresses this theory. Data pulled from the short analysis platform Fintel corroborates this, showing that the short interest is 19.75%. Short sellers presently only have a minuscule 0.27-day window to cover their positions.

Considering SAVE's shaky foothold, Citi's analyst, Stephen Trent, has downgraded the company from a Hold to a Sell, simultaneously lowering the price target from $13 to $4.

While there remains the possibility of an appeal, Trent questions its logic, stating, “…it is unclear why JetBlue wouldn’t cut its losses here and recognize that it avoided a risky bid on a highly levered carrier with steep losses.”

He further predicts that SAVE's EBITDA isn't likely to turn positive until 2025. A bond yield surpassing 40% augments the hurdles SAVE faces in securing another merger proposal.

Bottom Line

Undoubtedly, the previous week proved to be a stormy period for SAVE. However, some observers are optimistic that the company may recover and could potentially regain its value.

The future now hinges on the appeal filed jointly by SAVE and JBLU; its potential impact on the stock price in the coming weeks remains unknown.

Given the various challenges currently plaguing SAVE, the trend of short selling seems almost unavoidable. Indeed, SAVE presents a distinct possibility for a short squeeze, given its bleak future, which might include bankruptcy or liquidation. It's feasible that investors could identify it as their subsequent target. Nevertheless, this offers no guarantee of sustained squeeze or any significant profits.

It becomes crucial for investors to closely monitor SAVE’s overall performance moving forward. Unlike its competitors, the company hasn’t been able to recover due to a host of difficulties. This includes the availability of pilots, engine malfunctioning, saturation in certain domestic markets, and pronounced exposure to regions impacted by air traffic control adversities.

Considering the broader context, investors are advised to exercise caution and look for more favorable entry points in the stock.