Surprising most of Wall Street, Ford (NYSE: F ) turned a profit for the third quarter. A real profit.
Yes, venerable Ford, the only one of the Once-Big Three automakers to avoid bankruptcy in the last year, the company given up for dead by those same Wall Street analysts as recently as eight or nine months ago, posted a fat upside surprise net profit of almost a billion dollars on Monday morning. To be precise, $997 million, or $0.29 a share.
That's real money.
Unlike last quarter's surprise profit, this one wasn't made up of "special items" like credits from debt restructuring. This one's legit: Pre-tax operating profit was $1.1 billion. Better still, while Ford's financial-services unit continues to be a major profit center, $446 million came from the car business.
Ford divides its world into four regions -- North America, South America, Europe, and Asia Pacific -- and the car and truck businesses in all four showed positive results. That's the company's first quarterly operating profit in North America since 2005.
Ford's making real money from building and selling cars and trucks. It's impressive evidence that Ford's long-shot turnaround plan is working.
Yeah, but …
I'll admit that I have a few qualms. And just so we're real clear on this, I'm a Ford shareholder. Nobody wants to see a spectacular Ford recovery more than I do. But:
- Cash for Clunkers is over. Did the government program, which ended in August, create an unsustainable spike in sales, juicing these numbers?
- Consumer spending is falling again. The overall spending numbers fell in September, and auto sales fell with them. Worse, unemployment's still high, which means spending is likely to be low for awhile -- families with an unemployed member don't tend to buy TVs and iPods, much less new cars and trucks.
- The UAW isn't being helpful. The union is expected to reject a deal that would put Ford's U.S. labor contract on a roughly equal footing with those of post-bankruptcy General Motors and Chrysler, and closer to the arrangements in place at Toyota (NYSE: TM ) , Honda (NYSE: HMC ) , and Nissan's U.S. facilities. This could leave Ford at an ongoing competitive disadvantage.
These are all legitimate concerns. But I don't think any one of them is likely to derail Ford's recovery. While we may not have seen an end to money-losing quarters, Ford's mortgage-the-company recovery plan seems to be working better than just about anyone expected. The automaker should get through next year's economic bumps without too much trouble.
Ford itself is very clear on the near-term challenges, saying that while it now expects to be "solidly profitable" in 2011, what will happen between here and there is hard to predict. I'd say that's fair.
On the other hand …
There may be challenges ahead, but Ford does have some big things going for it right now:
- Ford management rocks like a rocking thing. CEO Alan Mulally, recruited from Boeing (NYSE: BA ) by the Ford family and charged with saving the company, has … well, he's just gone out and saved it, more effectively than anyone could have predicted. He was my nominee for Best CEO of 2008, and I expect he'll do even better in this year's ranking.
- Product, product, product. Buying decisions in the car business are often as much about romance as about things like practicality and value. Product is extremely important. Ford's products are winning rave reviews, even in places like Consumer Reports, not traditionally an American-auto cheerleader. And unlike some of its competitors (read: Chrysler), its near-term product pipeline looks very strong. If the upcoming Fiesta isn't a smash hit in the U.S., I'll be stunned.
- The Canadian Auto Workers are on board. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, the CAW has been willing to make further concessions. The union -- which represents 7,000 members of Ford's North American workforce -- readily approved a deal to freeze wages until 2012 and close an assembly plant, giving the company significant savings and stability on a key front.
- Supplier drama is a fading concern. Key Tier 1 auto suppliers like Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI ) and Federal-Mogul (Nasdaq: FDML ) are weathering the economic storm better than many predicted. In fact, Johnson Controls reported a happy earnings surprise of its own just last week, and worries about supply disruptions are fading across the board.
Long story short, I'd say that today's news shows that Ford's turnaround is on very solid ground and ahead of even the most optimistic predictions -- though challenges remain, and 2010 could be a bumpy ride.
That said, whether the stock is a buy at current prices is a more complicated question, one I'll ponder in detail sometime in the next couple of days. What do you think? Let's hash this out -- scroll down to leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.