Ford (NYSE: F ) is set to report first-quarter earnings before the bell on Wednesday. What should we expect?
If analysts' estimates are on target, we should expect a record profit – at least in North America.
According to Bloomberg, leading Wall Street auto analysts are forecasting a $2.7 billion first-quarter profit for Ford's North American division, driven by strong sales of pickups, the Focus compact, and the all-new Fusion.
But despite that success – which is tremendous -- Ford's net income may fall short of the $0.39 a share it reported in the first quarter of 2012.
Why? Because Ford is having a rough time overseas.
Once again, Ford's strength at home will shine
As I pointed out the other day, Ford has looked exceptionally strong in North America recently. Many of its factories are running two or even three shifts, a situation that suggests that profits will be very strong. The Wall Street crowd agrees, with analysts now saying that Ford's North American margins may have topped 12% in the quarter – a very strong number for a mass-market automaker.
The product development approach that is part of CEO Alan Mulally's "One Ford" plan continues to pay big benefits here in the U.S. Ford's current vehicle lineup is probably its strongest and most competitive ever. Ford has been able to post steady sales gains and keep its factories humming while reducing its spending on "incentives", or discounts. That's why Ford's profits here will likely look strong.
But the situation is different in Ford's other regional divisions.
Challenges – and opportunities – in overseas divisions
In South America, the company has already said it expects to lose $300 million on inflation pressures and unfavorable exchange-rate swings – though it expects to break even for the full year.
In Europe, recessions have driven auto sales to lows not seen in two decades. That has hurt everybody, but it has hurt Ford more than some, because of the Blue Oval's reluctance to offer deep discounts and make low-profit sales to rental-car fleets.
Europe is a mess, but as ace Morgan Stanley auto analyst Adam Jonas told Bloomberg, it's "a very controlled mess for Ford". I agree with that take: Ford is likely to lose a lot of money in Europe this year, but it is doing all the right things to turn that around in a couple of years – even if auto sales in Europe continue to be lousy.
But this quarter will still be messy. I wouldn't be surprised if Ford posted a loss in Europe of $500 million for the first quarter, or even more.
The story is different in Asia. Ford's sales are growing rapidly in China, as the company rolls out more of its global models to an increasingly savvy Chinese audience. Ford's Focus has already become one of China's best sellers, and its Escape (known as the Kuga in China) found a warm reception in March, its first full month on sale in the Middle Kingdom.
But profits are likely to be slim for a while, because Ford is still making massive investments in Asia. The company has committed nearly $5 billion to a series of new factories and other facilities, hoping to double sales by mid-decade. Ford is near the peak of its investment cycle now, so it's likely that Asia's first-quarter results will be close to breakeven. But again, this should be a big bright spot for Ford in a couple years' time.
The upshot: A good but subdued quarter is likely
Ford's revenues will be up versus the year-ago quarter, but so will overseas losses. The upshot is that Ford's first quarter is likely to come in a bit lower than last year's. Wall Street analysts surveyed by Bloomberg expect net income to be about $0.37 a share – two cents lower than the first quarter of 2012.
That seems about right. But we'll know for sure when Ford gives us the official word on Wednesday morning. Stay tuned.
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