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The company has had four profitable quarters in a row. It's generating cash hand over fist and gaining share in markets around the world. It has become the brightest light in a brutally consolidating industry.
So when is Ford (NYSE: F ) going to reinstate its dividend?
Dividends? You kidding me? Dividends?!
You'd think I'd have to be kidding, wouldn't you? After all, anyone who has paid even a little bit of attention to Ford over the last couple of years knows two things:
- The company's spectacular turnaround is already the stuff of myth and legend -- CEO Alan Mulally's moves will be talked about and analyzed in business schools for decades.
- That turnaround still has a long, long way to go.
I mean, here is a company that has something like $31 billion in automotive debt outstanding. Sure, they're managing it well -- they made a $3 billion payment in April, and Moody's just raised the company's credit rating another notch, to B1 -- but carrying that much debt costs big money. And that's a cost added to Ford's cars and trucks that Ford's bankruptcy-lightened Detroit competitors -- not to mention Toyota (NYSE: TM ) and Honda (NYSE: HMC ) -- don't have.
Sure, the Dearborn giant is doing better than even its biggest fans could have foreseen through their blue oval glasses. And if their product momentum continues, and if the economic recovery doesn't falter, they should be able to pay down that huge debt over the next few years without too much trouble.
But it's still early days for this recovery. Asking about dividends at this point seems to warrant an answer like the one former NFL coach Jim Mora famously gave when asked about his struggling team's chances of making the playoffs. ("Playoffs? You kidding me? Playoffs?! I just hope we can win a game!")
Then why did you even bring this up?
Actually, I didn't. Someone else did, at Ford's annual meeting earlier this month. And while it's easy to dismiss the kind of out-of-left-field questions that get asked at shareholder events -- and this one was dismissed out of hand by Executive Chairman Bill Ford -- it's going to be harder to dismiss other stakeholders who are already pushing for a return to the good old days.
Stakeholders like the United Auto Workers, for instance.
Yep, should have driven that stake through the UAW's heart
There are three certainties of life in Detroit: Death, taxes, and the UAW's leadership complaining that they're not getting their fair share. And guess what? The union is already starting to lean on Ford.
Yep, notwithstanding that little $31 billion hole in Ford's balance sheet, incoming UAW president Bob King has already put Ford on notice, filing several grievances and saying recently that "We just want to make sure when things turn around we share in the upside."
Listen up, Mr. King: We -- and by "we" I mean both Ford's shareholders and the several hundred million American taxpayers responsible for your present good fortune -- haven't forgotten that you got a whole lot of undeserved goodness handed to you on a silver platter just last year.
Remember the General Motors and Chrysler bankruptcies, where the companies were restructured to protect the UAW's interests at the (great) expense of bondholders, investors, taxpayers, and the rule of law? The ones where the retiree health care funds that your union controls (hey readers: will your employer pay for private health care insurance after you retire?) ended up owning 17.5% of GM and 55% of Chrysler?
Well, we remember. And when we hear you whining because Ford's salaried workers might get 3% raises this year -- this after your UAW members got profit-sharing checks, in accordance with the current contract -- certain words come to our minds.
Words my editor won't let me use.
But let's just say that you -- like that Ford shareholder asking about dividends -- really ought to pipe down and count your blessings while the grownups running Ford work on paying down that debt.