Pent-up demand will boost airline stocks in 2021 and beyond, trader says following JetBlue, United downgrades

It's no secret airlines have had an unprecedently bad year.

JPMorgan expects the pain to continue for some companies, with analysts double downgrading shares of JetBlue, Spirit and United Airlines to underweight from overweight on Wednesday on overvaluation concerns.

The firm maintained its overweight ratings on Delta, Alaska Airlines and Air Canada, suggesting "selective profit-taking" in the newly downgraded plays.

Steve Chiavarone, portfolio manager, equity strategist and vice president at Federated Hermes, was doing the opposite.

"Regardless of what happens with the holiday travel season, 2020's a dumpster fire and there's really nothing we can do about that," Chiavarone told CNBC's "Trading Nation" on Wednesday.

He said Federated moved hotel, airline, casino and cruise line stocks to overweight positions within its strategies back in September.

"We think 2020 really is a story about not only reopening, but about pent-up demand. Consumers spent on goods in 2020 because they couldn't spend on experiences," Chiavarone said. "In aggregate, U.S. consumers are sitting on $1.5 trillion of excess savings that can fund some of that experiential spending."

So while airlines may be painful to trade in the near term, their long-term outlook is relatively bright, he said.

"If there's pockets of weakness here because we're in the middle of this third wave and you've got downgrades and maybe some of the names have run ahead of themselves, fine," he said. "We're not buying them for the next month or two. We're buying them because we think 2021 is a road to normalization and then '22 and '23 are a period of time where you're getting back to those kind of pre-pandemic travel levels."

The charts seem to support that forecast, according to JC O'Hara, chief market technician at MKM Partners.

"I was actually very surprised when I saw the downgrade this morning," O'Hara in the same "Trading Nation" interview, pointing to a chart of the U.S. Global Jets ETF (JETS).

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"I circled the last time we saw airlines being downgraded, and that was back in June," O'Hara said, noting that the ETF broke above prior resistance.

"Obviously, that call proved to be timely," he said. "But I think now, JETS is back to that same level, and if they're quoting valuations now as they did back then, that's one thing, but I do think the picture has changed."

That's because markets are forward looking, and if pent-up demand and the economic reopening do take hold in six months or so, "this is a great way to play that," O'Hara said.

"I think the technicals are stronger here versus [where] they were back in June and I do believe there's plenty of upside for these airlines," he said. "I'll give you this fact: The average stock in the S&P 500 is 12% below its 2020 high. The average airline is 40% below those same levels."

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