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The Rolls-Royce share price is rising. Should I buy shares now?

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Rolls-Royce's business aviation engine, the Pearl 700
Image source: Rolls-Royce plc

Shares in Rolls Royce (LSE: RR) have moved around a fair bit lately. The share price is up 10% so far this year. In this past month alone it’s put on 20%. That performance hasn’t been enough to get the Rolls-Royce share price back to where it was, though — it’s still 40% lower than this time last year.

Here I will look at why the share price has been rising and consider whether I ought to add Rolls-Royce to my portfolio right now.

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The Rolls-Royce share price received a vaccine boost

The company’s recent share price increase has coincided with growing vaccination roll out. As an aeroplane engine maker and servicer, the company’s fortunes are tied to demand for air travel.

Rising vaccination rates ought to see more countries ease travel restrictions. That is good for Rolls-Royce, as the greater utilisation of engines, the higher the demand for servicing.

However, while vaccination rates are rising, air travel is still nowhere near its normal level. The company clearly expects demand to increase. It said it should be cash flow positive in the second half of this year. However, its prior estimate of how fast air travel would return was adjusted downward. I think it is too early to say with any certainty whether air travel demand will actually come back to anything close to normal levels even by the end of this year.

The company has substantial liquidity so should be able to ride out the storm even if it doesn’t turn cash flow positive in the second half. But that liquidity has come at a cost, most notably a large dilution of shares in last year’s rights issue. The challenge to the Rolls-Royce share price isn’t just about demand from airlines. I think it also reflects some investor nervousness that the company’s much-enlarged share float reduces the benefit to the shares even if the business does recover fully.

Hunting for better options

I find some aspects of the investment case for Rolls-Royce persuasive. It has a well-admired engineering expertise and reputation. The aircraft engine market is expensive and difficult to enter, so players like Rolls-Royce have a position of strength. Its installed base of engines virtually guarantees service revenues for years and sometimes decades to come, although a demand shock such as a future pandemic could affect them. In that sense, the company comes close to having the sort of economic moat Warren Buffett appreciates.

But the pandemic has shown up some weaknesses in the company’s business model too. It is highly sensitive to demand, which is largely outside its control. Even with budget savings such as the elimination of 7,000 positions last year, the fixed costs of developing and servicing plane engines are high. That is one reason I think the Rolls-Royce share price is still well below its former level, even after the recent increase.

Life getting back to normal will improve business prospects for the company. But for pandemic recovery picks I am more attracted by pub operators like J. D. Wetherspoon or transport companies like Go-Ahead. Their structural economics appeal to me more than those of Rolls-Royce, and demand recovery could come faster than it may for the aero engines market.

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christopherruane has no position in any of the shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has no position in any of the shares mentioned. Views expressed on the companies mentioned in this article are those of the writer and therefore may differ from the official recommendations we make in our subscription services such as Share Advisor, Hidden Winners and Pro. Here at The Motley Fool we believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.

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