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So why can't I shake the feeling that Ford (NYSE: F ) could be an intriguing opportunity?
Dude, you're crazy
Look, I know the whole auto industry is in straits that redefine the meaning of the word "dire." Everybody knows where General Motors (NYSE: GM ) and Chrysler are right now, and the automakers' problems are global -- even mighty Toyota (NYSE: TM ) is burning cash and feeling unprecedented pain.
Key auto suppliers are teetering on the edge: Ford spinoff Visteon (NYSE: VC ) , which remains one of Ford's biggest suppliers, is contemplating bankruptcy, while other Tier 1 suppliers like Johnson Controls and Lear (NYSE: LEA ) are scrambling to restructure while they still can.
But I can't stop looking at Ford. I think the legendary automaker might just survive -- without a trip to bankruptcy court. And if it does, it's a steal at current prices.
The hypnotic allure of the blue oval
Here's the case: Ford hasn't (yet) taken any bailout money; if nothing else, that's been a great brand-building decision. It's mortgaged to the hilt, but it still has money in the bank. It's also got ex-Boeing (NYSE: BA ) whiz Alan Mulally running the place. In my opinion (and I'm not the only one), he might be the best CEO in America not named Buffett.
Even better, Consumer Reports recently declared Ford's quality on par with Toyota and Honda (NYSE: HMC ) . For a Detroit automaker, that's like finding the Holy Grail after decades of questing (but without the Knights Who Say "Ni").
Most importantly, Ford's products are generating buzz. The new hybrid version of the Fusion sedan is posting eye-popping (and more to the point: hybrid-Camry-trouncing) MPG numbers, the little Fiesta is winning award after award in Europe (and is due here in a year -- what was that about no good Detroit small cars?), and the refreshed F-150 truck is getting a warm reception despite the icy market -- good news for Ford's sales leader.
"So what?" you say. "Its balance sheet is still a disaster. Its debt load is beyond brutal -- it's surreal. It lost a record $14.6 billion for the year and burnt through more than $21 billion in cash reserves. Ford Motor Credit, its financing company, is yet another bank trainwreck waiting to happen." True. But all of those points I made a paragraph above suggest this: Ford will continue to sell cars and trucks, even while the economy stinks.
Ford's stock is priced for failure -- at this point, it's essentially an option on what the market sees as a slim hope of recovery without a trip through bankruptcy court. Ford itself says it's hoping to break even in 2011 -- and that's the optimistic case. And maybe the common stock isn't the way to take a position here -- bonds or convertible preferreds might be the way to go instead.
But Ford will keep selling cars and trucks. If it does that, I just can't see it failing. Deutsche Bank at least seems to agree. And if the company won't fail, that cheap option is worth picking up, isn't it? Or am I nuts?
Why I might be nuts
This is one of those cases where my ability to look at the situation objectively is probably – OK, almost definitely -- clouded. I've written before about how our brain wiring can make us prone to certain kinds of bad investing decisions. I think being able to recognize one's own biases is a key to sustained investment success.
In this case, my lifelong enthusiasm for cars is probably causing confirmation bias. It's hard for me to imagine a world without Ford in it. I might be weighting the evidence in favor of its survival too heavily.
Furthermore, I've owned auto stocks before, with (mostly) great success. At various times in the last 20 years, I've made good money buying Chrysler, GM, or Ford shares at the bottom of their respective cycles, and holding them for a couple of years. The last time I owned Ford, I bought at $21 and sold at $30 -- and got a decent dividend along the way. That history is hard for me to forget.
Yes, that was a long time ago, but still. They're cyclical stocks, this is one heck of a cyclical bottom, and I can't help reading this situation as a "screaming opportunity."
What's your opinion?
Am I on to something? Is this worth risking a small chunk of my portfolio? Or am I completely crazy, focusing on a sentimental favorite in a world full of better opportunities? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.
Read more about the Big Three and other firms on the brink: