Which 10 companies should you keep out of your portfolio? Find out in our special series on the Worst Stocks for 2009.
Desperation can lead people to do downright silly things. Consider Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's claim that Oprah Winfrey was on his short list for Barack Obama's Senate seat. Clearly, the man has been backed into a corner, and this was a "Hail Mary" that was thrown up with his eyes closed.
With the S&P 500 down over 45% since its 2007 peak, it's not surprising that some investors may be feeling a lot like Mr. Blagojevich. Throwing a deep ball hoping that it gets to the end zone and into the hands of the right team may seem tempting to investors who have been clobbered in 2008. There may even be stocks out there that are worth the bet.
Others, however, are best kept away from, even with your trusty ten-foot pole. And Ford (NYSE: F ) is one of those.
The deck is stacked
The trouble with Ford's stock is that it may be very tempting to some investors who look at the $1.94 price tag and think that it's a nice, cheap price for a great American car maker. Even those who aren't fooled by the company's share price may fall prey to its tantalizingly low equity value. Is the iconic Ford Motor Company really worth less than $5 billion? After all, the company is still doing over $160 billion in revenue, and competitors Toyota (NYSE: TM ) , Honda (NYSE: HMC ) , and Daimler carry market caps of $104 billion, $85 billion, and $28 billion, respectively.
The trap door with Ford is the company's debt -- all $157 billion of it. Looking at Ford on the basis of its total enterprise value -- which is equity value plus net debt -- the company is still valued near or above the better-positioned automakers.
What makes the whole situation worse is the fact that Ford is not simply a car manufacturer, it is also an auto financing company. That means that not only is the company dealing with slowing consumer spending, high legacy manufacturing costs, and tough competition from overseas manufacturers, but also with cash-strapped consumers defaulting on loans that they took out during the good times. Sure, Ford may not be Citigroup (NYSE: C ) or Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) , writhing under an avalanche of bad financial bets, but it doesn't need to be that bad for shareholders to suffer in 2009.
It boils down to who owns the company
The dealio at Ford comes down to the fact that debt holders are really the ones who own the company at this point. At the end of the third quarter, the company had a shareholder deficit of nearly $2 billion, which basically means that there are more non-equity claims against assets than there are assets. That's bad news for shareholders because debt holders have rights and protections that will let them flick away equity holders like a paper football, if push comes to shove.
In the end, I don't totally doubt that Ford can turn itself around -- I still have faith in that American "can do" attitude. But the question is whether that turnaround can happen soon enough that there's still some real value to the common equity.
If for some reason you think Ford has to play a part in your portfolio in 2009, I'd suggest joining the team that has some legal recourse and looking at Ford's publicly traded debt. Otherwise, head for one of the other -- preferably non-struggling international -- car companies. Or, if auto manufacturers don't have to be on the agenda, head over to CAPS and check out some of the great five-star rated stocks such as Valero (NYSE: VLO ) and Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM ) .
But before you do either, be sure to click through to CAPS and let the 125,000 member community know that you think Ford's stock should be avoided like the plague in 2009.