Last year was an excellent ride for Ford (NYSE:F). On top of growing its market share in the U.S. and China, as well as doubling its dividend early in the year, the company managed to drastically improve two factors holding the stock back: losses in Europe and its underfunded pension. Ford has momentum, for sure, and even with a likely less profitable 2014 due to 23 new global vehicle launches -- compared to 11 last year -- it announced solid numbers to put the finishing touches on 2013.
December sales are up 2% to 218,058 vehicles
Ford's total December sales were up 2%, which will likely slightly trail the industry average, and its retail sales were up 3%, which was its best December mark since 2005. While the 2% gain might leave investors wanting more, there are some excellent figures in the sales release.
Consider that Ford's most profitable vehicle is the F-Series and it posted sales of 74,592 full-size trucks in December. Any month where Ford sells more than 50,000 is considered great, so the streak of eight consecutive months where sales have topped 60,000 is huge. Moreover, this is the best monthly sales mark for the F-Series in 2013 and its best annual performance since 2006. Sales of the F-Series will lead Ford's profits higher when its fourth-quarter earnings are reported in early February.
With Ford's F-Series leading the charge, another excellent sign for investors is surging sales of the Fusion and Escape. This is important because Ford's premium-model trims for these two vehicles sell well to consumers and it bring in higher transaction prices and profits, especially the "Titanium" trim. Sales of the Fusion and Escape were up 27% and 22%, respectively, so if the Titanium was a popular choice again this holiday season look for fourth-quarter results to be even better.
A year in review
Ford remains America's best-selling brand in 2013 -- although GM leads in overall sales due to having sales split between four major brands -- and widened its lead over Toyota significantly last year. America's second-largest automaker brought in nearly 2.5 million vehicle sales and its retail sales were up 14% for 2013 -- an excellent figure. Ford also surged in all major segments with double-digit annual retail gains across cars, utilities, and trucks, which posted gains of 12%, 13%, and 17%, respectfully.
The year ahead
As Ford puts the final touches on a very strong year and prepares to release what should be a very profitable fourth-quarter report in about a month, investors are turning to 2014. The company is planning to unleash many vehicles, which will send costs much higher -- and profits lower -- this year. This sent some investors running for doors, but the drop in profits isn't a catastrophic event.
For 2013 Ford expects pre-tax profits to come in around $8.5 billion and this year the range is expected to be between $7.0 billion and $8.0 billion -- still a very strong year for the company. The 23 global vehicle launches will secure strong revenues and profits for the rest of the decade.
As we set forth in the new year, Ford investors should keep an eye on three things. First, what will CEO Alan Mulally do? Will he stay, will he go, will he retire? This is the least important factor to me. While I would gladly have Mulally stay on as long as possible, he's done such a phenomenal job turning the company around and preparing a successor I'm not as worried as most investors. When his decision is put to rest it will remove uncertainty for some investors, and that's a positive development for Ford's stock price.
The second thing for investors to watch (once again) is losses in Europe. Ford made progress in the region and it appears as if a bottom has been reached, although sales in the region remain in dire conditions. The company stands by its goal to break even, or produce a profit, in 2015, but 2014 will give us an idea of when to expect Ford to reach that goal.
Third, with so many vehicle launches it will be vital that Ford does it as seamlessly as possible. If there's a production delay, or a costly recall, it could quickly put a damper on a strong year. Balancing previous years' inventory while switching plants to produce the new vehicle is a complicated task and will be something for investors to watch in 2014.
If all goes well, 2014 could be a much better year for Ford than expected -- and investors who ran for the door early last month could regret their decisions. This year will still be a strong for the company, and considering Ford has beaten expectations six out of the last seven quarters, while matching expectations once, I won't be surprised to see that trend continue in 2014.
Fool contributor Daniel Miller owns shares of Ford. The Motley Fool recommends Ford. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not 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.