Why Is Ford Losing in Europe?

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Ford (NYSE: F  ) is doing quite well here in the U.S., but it's another story in Europe. Th company lost $1.75 billion in the Old World last year, the brutal result of a protracted car-sales slump that has hit the entire industry very hard.

Nearly all of the automakers doing business in Europe have seen big sales declines over the last year. Deep recessions in many European nations have led cash-strapped consumers to put off new-car purchases for now.

But in recent months, Ford has lost more ground than most of its rivals. Europe's overall auto sales fell 11.4% in February, but Ford's fell even more -- down almost 20% from year-ago totals.

It was a similar story in January, and in December, too, when Ford's sales were down a whopping 27%.

We know Ford's latest cars are good. So what's going on? And what does this slide mean for Ford's efforts to get back to making money in Europe?

A discount war that crushed profits
As Europe's auto sales have plummeted to a near-20-year low, many of the mass-market automakers have responded as you'd expect -- with deep discounts. European market leader Volkswagen (NASDAQOTH: VLKAY  ) , flush with profits from China and North America, cut prices aggressively in an effort to hold on to, or even gain, market share at less-well-funded rivals' expense.

Naturally, those rivals have done their best to respond with price cuts of their own. Ford, long Europe's No. 2 car brand behind VW, did plenty of discounting -- until last fall, when mounting losses led the company's senior management to rethink the company's approach in Europe from top to bottom.

A plan to return Ford Europe to profitability
That rethink led to a comprehensive turnaround plan, announced by Ford CEO Alan Mulally last October. The plan, intended to restore Ford Europe to profitability by mid-decade, is well thought out and comprehensive. Most analysts gave it a good chance of succeeding, and Ford's stock rallied in the days after the announcement.

Under the plan, Ford will close a factory in Belgium and two in the U.K., eliminating more than 5,000 jobs and saving as much as $500 million a year. Ford will also sharply expand its European lineup, drawing on its strong global product portfolio to expand its offerings of SUVs and commercial vehicles in Europe. The expanded product lineup should allow Ford to capture additional sales in segments it hasn't previously contested in Europe, at minimal cost.

Ford also said it will engage in "brand strengthening," improving its marketing and taking steps -- such as reducing dealer inventories, and cutting sales to rental-car companies -- to improve transaction prices.

Or put another way, over the past few months, Ford has been selling its cars and trucks with fewer discounts.

Is that shift in strategy costing Ford more sales than it had expected?

Lost ground may require a change in plan
A Reuters report this past week suggests that it might be. As the report points out, Ford's Europe turnaround plan was predicated on the assumption that the Blue Oval wouldn't lose its share of the overall market, even as it contracted.

That's one thing that's not going according to plan. In the first two months of 2013, Ford's European market share fell 1.2 points, to 6.7%, according to data from the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association. Ford's position as Europe's second-place brand (after VW) is in peril. More importantly, in January, it raised its estimate of 2013 Europe losses from $1.5 billion to $2 billion.

Clearly, Ford will have to modify its approach if this trend continues. How is the company likely to respond? Ford could return to deep discounting -- according to Reuters, its discounts in Europe's top five markets jumped 30% in 2012, way ahead of the 11% industry average.

Alternatively, Ford could choose to cut further. Mulally emphasized in November that Ford is determined to "match our production to the level of demand" in Europe.

That approach has worked very well for Ford in North America, where its factories are running at full capacity and then some. Closing factories in Europe can be a very expensive proposition, but if Ford Europe is to return to profitability, it may be money well spent in the long run.

Worried about Ford?
If you're concerned that Ford's turnaround has run its course, relax -- there's good reason to think that the Blue Oval still has big growth opportunities ahead. We've outlined those opportunities in detail, in the Fool's premium Ford research service. If you're looking for some freshly updated guidance to Ford's prospects in coming years, you've come to the right place -- click here to get started now.

Read/Post Comments (6) | Recommend This Article (5)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2013, at 10:34 AM, gilpagan0999 wrote:

    because they are getting to expensive to buy

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2013, at 11:21 AM, cityperson wrote:

    From reading this story, Ford' problems is the overall worlds economy. Most large companies are losing in many places do to the worlds economy at this point in time.

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2013, at 11:56 AM, philthymcnasty wrote:

    Maybe people are not buying cars because 1)gas is more expensive over there than in America. 2) they have well established public transit. 3) There are political factors as well, tariffs, and incentives to force people to ride bikes and walk to work. These things alone will hinder car sales on top of a bad economy.

    They simply have not changed the business strategy to compete over seas. Meanwhile back home, fiat has started an aggressive marketing campaign with their new product lines, and have already started fixing the problems with the dodges to make them more sale able. This is on top of Asian competition in the states.

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2013, at 12:07 PM, damien196 wrote:

    Hmm, I don't know why Ford is losing in Europe...could it be that they put such a miserable effort in the brand marketing that their named their most marketed model: KUGA! Which, of course, means PLAGUE in Slavic languages. I'd love to read an interview with the genius who came up with this idea for the European market. Perhaps he/she's plotting the next US model under the name HERPES? ("Get your HERPES today from your friendly Ford dealer")

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2013, at 4:07 PM, Cinabarvalley wrote:

    This is not a unique case to FORD, but to all

    American Cars..The problem..?? The quality.

    The Car Industry has been increasing in

    competing against each other for the last

    30 years, with new "Players on the table"

    The Japanese, South Korean, Italians and

    Germans, as well as French.They are all in

    the international market now, and what it

    counts in these days is "QUALITY" and low

    energy consuption..Two main issues, where

    the American Cars "Can not Compete".

  • Report this Comment On March 25, 2013, at 9:38 AM, TMFMarlowe wrote:

    @Cinabarvalley, your analysis is 10 years out of date. Ford's current cars are more than competitive with everybody, and better than most. The problem seems to be pricing in a recessionary market.

    John Rosevear

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