Ford shares tank as automaker reminds investors there's no quick fix in Europe

DEARBORN, Mich. – Ford is posting record profits in North America, but it’s not enough to quell unease about the company’s prospects elsewhere.

Ford’s shares dropped nearly 5 per cent Tuesday after the company said it expects to lose more money in Europe this year and break even in Asia and South America. The final straw for investors: Ford said sales will increase next year but profits should remain about the same, dashing hopes that margins will continue to grow.

The outlook “brings overly optimistic investor expectations back in check,” Barclays analyst Brian Johnson said in a note to investors.

The No. 2 U.S. automaker posted a record pretax profit of $8.3 billion in North America in 2012, the result of a 6-year turnaround orchestrated by CEO Alan Mulally. It’s reaching back into that playbook to fix its operations in Europe, where it lost $1.75 billion. The European restructuring plan announced in October was one reason Ford’s stock has been trading at levels not seen since 2011.

But Tuesday, Ford forecast a loss of $2 billion in Europe and company executives and Wall Street analysts reminded investors that improving the performance outside of North America — in both Europe and Asia — will take time.

“These things don’t happen in three months, six months or even a year. But we will get there,” Chief Financial Officer Bob Shanks said in a phone call with investors and media.

Shares fell 64 cents to $13.14, wiping out most of their gain for this year. Just two weeks ago, the shares hit an 18-month high of $14.30 after Ford announced it was doubling its annual dividend to 40 cents per share.

The outlook overshadowed another strong performance in North America last year. Ford’s F-Series pickups retained their decades-long place as the bestselling vehicles in the U.S., while sales of the Focus small car jumped 40 per cent. Even the Escape SUV and Fusion sedan remained top sellers despite recalls of some new models for safety problems.

Ford made more money on every vehicle because it cut back on deals and added features that U.S. buyers paid a premium for, such as inflatable seatbelts. Auto pricing site estimated that U.S. buyers paid an average of $31,935 per Ford vehicle last year, or $500 more than the year before.

Ford is distributing record profit-sharing bonuses of $8,300 to its 45,800 U.S. workers as a result of its North American profits.

But that’s where the good news ends.

Ford’s 2012 earnings declined by $300 million to $5.66 billion because of the loss in Europe. Earnings fell to $1.42 per share from $1.51 per share.

Europe sales fell by 15.5 per cent last year, and the company doesn’t expect things to get better soon.

“Europe will hit bottom this year,” Shanks said.

To stem the losses, Ford is employing the strategy it used in its U.S. operations six years ago. It’s closing three European factories by 2014, affecting 6,200 employees, and introducing 15 new vehicles to Europe over the next five years, including the iconic Mustang sports car.

Jefferies analyst Peter Nesvold, who recommends buying Ford stock, said Ford’s stunning turnaround in North America — where it lost $1.9 billion as recently as 2008 — should convince investors that it can have similar success in Europe.

“One has to believe the shares have tremendous upside if Ford comes even close to replicating its North American restructuring success in Europe,” Nesvold wrote.

In Ford’s Asia Pacific and Africa region, sales rose 15 per cent for the year. But an aggressive expansion across the region is cutting profits. In China alone, Ford plans to build two new plants, introduce the Lincoln brand and bring out eight new vehicles in the next two years. Revenue in Asia rose 19 per cent to $10 billion in 2012, but the division reported a pretax loss of $77 million.

Asia is becoming increasingly important to Ford, which has set a goal of selling one-third of its cars and trucks there by 2020, up from about 18 per cent now. But the region is a long way from becoming a big revenue-generator, in part because Ford sells smaller vehicles in China that don’t command the high prices of its SUVs and trucks.

Sales of the Focus small car are now higher in Ford’s Asia Pacific region than in the U.S. or Europe. Ford sold 86,000 Focus sedans in Asia Pacific in the third quarter, up 79 per cent from last year. By comparison, North American Focus sales were up 30 per cent to 65,000 and European sales were down 18 per cent to 74,000.

New products should boost sales in South America this year, but currency and trade issues are likely to hamper its results there, Ford said. South American profits fell by 75 per cent to $213 million last year.

Christian Mayes, an auto analyst for investment firm Edward Jones, said that besides the time and money that “right-sizing the European operations” is going to require, Ford investors have other reasons to worry.

European automakers such as Mercedes who are struggling at home are planning lower-cost cars for the U.S. market that will compete with Fords. And competition from Japanese and Korean automakers remains strong. Ford lost U.S. market share in 2012 as Japanese automakers came roaring back after the 2011 earthquake in Japan.

Shanks said Ford expects to gain U.S. market share this year. The company is expecting pickup sales to increase, which should benefit the F-Series, and the new Escape and Fusion should also do well now that the safety recalls are behind them.

Sales of cars and trucks in the U.S. totalled 14.5 million in 2012 — the industry’s best performance in five years. Forecasts are for an even better 2013, with the Polk auto research firm forecasting 15.3 million vehicle sales as the economy continues to improve.

Shanks said Ford’s margins will stay in the 5-per cent range in 2013 even though sales are expected to increase. That’s partly because of the company’s continuing pension obligations. Ford plans to contribute $5 billion to its pensions in 2013, up from $3.4 billion last year.

Ford’s fourth-quarter profit totalled $1.6 billion, down from a $13.6 billion profit a year earlier. But the profit actually rose by $600 million absent a big accounting-related gain in last year’s quarter.

Ford earned 31 cents per share, up from an adjusted 20 cents per share in the fourth quarter of 2011. That beat analysts’ forecast of 25 cents per share, according to FactSet.

Fourth-quarter revenue rose 5 per cent to $36.5 billion, beating analysts’ forecast of $33.5 billion.

In North America, Ford’s pretax profit more than doubled in the fourth quarter to $1.87 billion.