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Here's a cheerful-sounding note from the PR crew at Ford (NYSE: F ) for the last business day of 2011: The Blue Oval announced on Friday morning that "U.S. sales of the Ford brand this week topped 2 million vehicles for the first time since 2007."
According to the Blue Oval's PR mavens, this makes Ford the "best-selling [automotive] brand in America" and "the first automotive brand to hit the 2 million mark since 2007."
Speaking as a Ford shareholder, I'd say that sounds good. So is it?
A little context is in order
As far as auto sales go, 2007 was a different world, with total U.S. light-vehicle sales over 16 million, a number the industry hasn't come anywhere near since. (When 2011's totals are added up next week, the result is likely to be in the neighborhood of 12.8 million.) And while it was a sales bonanza compared with the economic crisis that would follow in 2008, it was seen at the time as a rough year for Ford, and a tough one for the industry in general:
- 2.1 million Ford-brand vehicles were sold in 2007, a total that was down almost 14% from 2006 numbers.
- Ford also sold about 168,000 Mercury-brand vehicles (remember Mercury?) that year, most or all of which should probably be folded in with the Ford-brand results for a fair comparison, if one should be needed.
- Ford-brand sales were third in the U.S. pecking order in 2007, behind General Motors' (NYSE: GM ) Chevrolet and Toyota (NYSE: TM ) , which was then challenging for the U.S. sales lead. (Remember Toyota? Yes, I'm joking. Sort of.)
Of course, Ford was in deep trouble in 2007, with then-new CEO Alan Mulally just getting started on the daring all-or-nothing turnaround plan that would transform the company (and Detroit). And now? Ford's total U.S. sales may be a smaller number in 2011 than was seen in 2007, but it's a bigger and (more to the point) much more profitable piece of a smaller pie.
So yes, I'd say that's a milestone worth trumpeting. But how does it look in today's context?
The emerging picture as 2011 ends
TrueCar.com released its December auto-sales forecast earlier this week , and while it's largely consistent with trends we've seen in recent months -- solid incremental year-over-year gains for Ford and GM, more dramatic increases for Chrysler and Hyundai (OTC: HYMTF.PK) -- there are some other themes emerging.
First, while this has been predicted (here and elsewhere) for months, it's looking like Toyota's long sales nightmare might finally be coming to an end. TrueCar predicts that the long-suffering Japanese giant's U.S. sales will be down just 1.7% over last December's. That's a sign that inventory troubles may finally be receding -- and a promising sign of early success for the company's all-new Camry sedan.
That's important: The Camry is perhaps the company's most important model in the United States, and critics greeted the latest iteration with some skepticism. But with a brand-new "Recommended" rating from Consumer Reports issued just this week, the revamped Camry seems to be well on its way to success.
Hard-hit rival Honda (NYSE: HMC ) , which suffered badly in the wake of flooding in Thailand, may not be so lucky: TrueCar sees Honda's year-over-year sales down almost 16%. Honda, of course, has other problems, with its mainstay Civic compact losing sales ground (and its long-held Consumer Reports recommendation) to strong competition from Hyundai, Ford, and GM. Honda's rushing a refresh of the Civic, but it may be a year before we see it at dealers.
Meanwhile, Ford appears to be on course for a year-over-year increase of about 7%. That's a so-so result, perhaps, but in the light of history -- and the company's relentless push toward even greater profitability -- it's one that could turn out to be better than you'd think.
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