Market Outlook: Taking shape without form

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At the start of the year there was considerable debate over which letter of the alphabet would describe the shape of the recovery. Whether a V or U was used varied by region, and in some areas there were, and still are, fears of a W-shape.

But the first half of the year has seen a better than expected business traffic recovery. For example, Credit Suisse's travel and entertainment bill rose from SFr198 million ($198 million) in the first half of 2009 to SFr242 million during the first half of 2010. But even though this figure is a healthy improvement, it is only two-thirds of the SFr301 million spent in H1 2008.

Regardless, this has resulted in a better mix, some better fares and better yields - which in large part were helped by rigorous capacity discipline that it is now history. The issue is what happens next.

US second quarter data shows economic growth had effectively stalled, but the Federal Reserve said it would take "unconventional" steps to keep it moving. Elsewhere, a range of data and statistics shine some light on what has happened and what the future might hold, but they have not shown a consistent picture as far as North America and Europe are concerned. Stock markets continue to be volatile, with no clear direction. While bulls may be in ascendancy one day, it is usually the bears that win through the next.

As we move into the final quarter of 2010, corporate budgets for 2011 are beginning to be finalised and approved. Travel and advertising remain the easiest things to cut quickly and their outlook is probably a reasonable market indicator. After all, decisions on corporate travel will have a direct impact on airline revenues.

The latest chief executive confidence survey from the US Conference Board, published in July, suggests chief executives remain positive about the short-term outlook, but they appear to be growing slightly more cautious. Some 48% expect economic conditions to improve in the next six months, but this is down from 52% in the last quarter and 58% in the quarter before that.

The world's largest advertising company, WPP, says 2010 interim adverting expenditure, on a like-for-like basis, was 3% up. While this is evidence of a recovery in corporate discretionary spend, it does not fully compensate for the 7.8% slump in interim figures between 2008 and 2009.

Turning to the latest views on future corporate travel trends, the most recent survey from Airplus compares the US outlook for the second half of 2010 with the same period in 2009. Somewhat positively for the airline industry, the headline is "on the up and up".

Roughly 60% of respondents expect travel to increase, rather than decrease or stay the same. Almost 15% of travel buyers respondents expect 1-5% growth. But all of the travel suppliers with second half growth expectations believe it will hit at least 5%. And some 19% of them go further still, predicting an increase of 15-25%. The buyers, however, are more cautious. Only 8% expect growth in excess of 15%.

When travel managers were asked to identify the areas where they would feel pressure exerted by senior management, 50% said it would be to find greater savings and a third said that they would need to show a return on investment from travel.

While the latter suggests that the travel hurdle may become higher again, the desire for more savings and the fact that travel suppliers are more bullish than travel buyers may show through in reduced revenue growth.

Across the Atlantic, Airplus reports that one third of travel managers expect an increase in the number of business flights, but perhaps the more statistically significant finding is that two-thirds of those questioned either expect no increase or a decline.

From a parochial perspective, the latest edition of the ICAEW/Grant Thornton UK business confidence monitor paints a rather concerning picture for one of the big travel sectors, with the third quarterly fall in the level of confidence expressed by the banking and finance sector.

Against this background it did not go unnoticed that most of the recent results statements from the airlines expressed a degree of caution in absolute terms, rather than as cautious optimism - probably a reasonable assessment for those airlines that are dependent more on the recovery of the cycle than on the markets which offer structural growth.