Why Ford's Shifting Into High Gear Against GM and Toyota

After surviving the financial crisis on its own, iconic automaker Ford (NYSE: F  )  has continued to defy expectations with a string of solid earnings reports. While the company is still struggling in some areas, it seems to be heading in the right direction -- yet it's still trading at a discount. Let's see whether the company's ready to go toe-to-toe with the likes of GM (NYSE: GM  ) and Toyota (NYSE: TM  )

Ford sales picking up steam
Ford's latest earnings report pleased investors, displaying considerable strength in several geographical areas. The company's third-quarter earnings per share of $0.45 (excluding items) beat estimates by $0.07, and was up 12.5% year over year. For the quarter, Ford achieved a record pre-tax profit, with revenue up 12% year over year to $36 billion. Additionally, Ford raised its full-year guidance .

But the financial media paid the most attention to Ford's revival of its European business. European losses were halved for the quarter compared to last year, and the company now expects the region to actually return to profitability by 2015.

In even more good news for Ford, the automaker posted an 18.1% rise in truck and SUV sales, which make up the bulk of Ford's revenue .

Catching up to Toyota and GM
Ford's major competitors are Toyota and GM. These two companies are locked in a battle for the No.1 spot in global car sales, with Toyota likely to remain in pole position for the January-September period. It sold around 7,412 million vehicles, representing an increase of 0.1%, as its North American operations continue to perform well.

Still, Ford seems to be catching up. According to the company, the Ford Focus was the world's best-selling car in the first half of the year, although Toyota has hotly disputed that claim. The Japanese auto titan claims its Corolla model was in fact the best-selling car, and that the study pointing to Ford's victory ignored certain naming issues and a number of markets in which Toyota does business. 

Toyota has run into a spot of trouble recently, though, as its Camry, RAV4, and Prius V received disappointing crash test safety scores in a Consumer Reports test .

GM, the top U.S. automaker, saw its October U.S. sales rise slightly faster than those of its hometown rival, with a 16% gain for the month versus Ford's 14%. The figures are encouraging as the industry rebounds from a tough September.

However, Ford has a higher profit margin and higher total profit in the US than GM, and the company is working hard at stealing awayhttp://www.detroitnews.com/article/20131101/AUTO01/311010047some of GM's market share. While GM is still bigger in terms of market share and total sales, Ford is growing considerably faster. 

Valuations and metrics
Despite this impressive growth, Ford stock trades at a bit of a discount to its peers. Ford currently trades at about 12 times trailing earnings, versus GM's 13.5 and Toyota's 13.1. This is curious, considering that Ford's quarterly revenue growth and margins are roughly at the midpoint between these two rivals.

Part of this may be due to Ford's debt load, at about $108 billion or 553 times equity. The competitors mentioned here have fractions of that total debt-to-equity ratio. However, most of Ford's debt comes from its credit division, which is actually making money for the company. Its automotive debt sat at only $15.8 billion as of June 30, which is more than manageable. 

The bottom line
Ford is one of the major US success stories as of late, bouncing off severely depressed sales levels and now competing with some of the top global auto manufacturers. While it still has some work to do in terms of attaining market share, the company seems to be on the right track, and it's pleasing investors and analysts alike. Going forward, investors should pay close attention to the Blue Oval's sales figures to see whether it can keep up this excellent momentum. However, its low valuation could easily propel the stock higher in the near future. 


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