Ford's Doing Better Than You Think

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It sure looks good at first glance: Automakers reported a big increase in U.S. sales in November, with the annualized selling rate climbing to its highest level since August of 2009, when the government's Cash for Clunkers program peaked.

While Ford (NYSE: F  ) posted solid results -- overall sales were up 13% year over year for the Blue Oval, a bit ahead of strong analyst expectations -- it fell a bit short of the industry-average 13.9% pace. But there's some good news hidden behind the headline numbers and some interesting trends among Ford's key competitors.

Ford's numbers: Better than they look
Here's the number that Ford's PR folks emphasized when results were released on Thursday, with (I think) good reason: 20%. That was Ford's year-over-year increase in retail sales, its largest such increase in nine months. Ford's retail market share in the U.S. stands at about 15%, company officials said, its highest level in five years.

The distinction between retail and overall sales might sound like splitting hairs (or PR spin), but there's a distinction there that's important for shareholders to understand. For years, the Detroit automakers have been dependent on sales to fleets -- think rental-car companies, government agencies, and the like -- to boost their sales numbers and keep factories humming, particularly with less-competitive models. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- those sales are still profitable ones -- but retail sales are more profitable.

Higher retail sales are also a good sign for shareholders because they speak to the competitiveness of an automaker's products, and thus to the automaker's ability to get good prices (with good margins). Fleet sales are still an important part of Ford's business, but with Ford CEO Alan Mulally having (sensibly) prioritized profits over market share, a boost in retail sales relative to fleet sales is another sign that the Dearborn, Mich., giant is continuing to execute well on its plan.

Although Ford's incentives spending was down 6.1% in November, its sales gain -- and the industry's -- comes with a question mark: Was this just a Black Friday blip?

Is this a blip or the start of a trend?
It's hard to say, though analysts at Edmunds and elsewhere expressed caution, suggesting that consumers were in a deal-ready mode in late November. On the other hand, many consumers have postponed new-car purchases in recent years, and the average age of cars on American roads has gone way up. With unemployment numbers finally ticking down a bit, it's possible that more households will be shifting into car-buying mode in coming months.

No matter what, though, November was a good month for a lot of automakers:

  • General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) posted an unimpressive-looking 7% gain, but with a good story similar to Ford's: The General's retail deliveries were up 15% on strong sales of trucks and Chevrolet cars, while its fleet sales were down 14%. But there's a caveat: GM's incentives spending was up slightly in November. Most key competitors spent less than last year.
  • Chrysler posted a tremendous 44.5% year-over-year increase on the continued strength of its revamped product line and strong marketing, its sixth consecutive month of sales increases over 20%. That wasn't just fleet sales, either: Chrysler's retail sales were up 51% on the month.
  • Nissan (OTC: NSANY) saw a 19% increase in U.S. sales on the strength of its cars and small SUVs, and benefited further from the supply issues that continue to plague its key Japanese rivals.
  • Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) posted a 6.7% increase, its first U.S. sales gain in nine months and a sign that the Japanese giant is finally recovering from the natural disasters that have made its 2011 a year to forget. Officials said the company was seeing strong demand for the Camry and Prius sedans and confidently predicted that Toyota's U.S. sales and market share would continue to recover in coming months.
  • Hyundai (OTC: HYMTF) and its corporate cousin Kia saw 22% and 39% sales jumps, respectively, as Hyundai's redesigned Elantra continues to make hay at Toyota's expense. Meanwhile, Kia's new line of sharply styled vehicles and cheeky marketing is finally making inroads as good value propositions at the lower end of the market.
  • Volkswagen (OTC: VLKAY) posted a 40.7% increase for November, giving it a 25% increase in the U.S. for the year to date and adding fuel to its hopes of surpassing Toyota and GM as the world's No. 1 automaker at some point in the next several years.

Who lagged? Honda (NYSE: HMC  ) , with sales down 6.4% as the company continues to suffer from production losses related to flooding in Thailand. Honda officials now expect production to be back on track in January.

Ford is well-positioned for 2012
Ford officials have expressed cautious optimism for 2012, suggesting that they think an industrywide sales rate of around 13.5 million -- roughly the pace of sales we saw in November -- is a reasonable expectation for coming months. GM CEO Dan Akerson took a more cautious tone recently, though, expressing concerns that economic problems in Europe could spark a global slowdown.

Any uptick is unlikely to be dramatic, given the slow pace of the current recovery. But continued strong execution on Ford's part should bode well for the company's stock price -- even as its key Japanese giants finally recover from the challenges of 2011.

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Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. You can follow his auto-related musings on Twitter, where he goes by @jrosevear. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Ford and General Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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