Ford (NYSE: F ) has had an impressive run over the last several years. A dramatic turnaround in North America has pushed the stock up nearly ten-fold from its early 2009 lows.
Ford's products compete very well here in the U.S., and profits have been strong. But Ford — a global company — is still very much a work in progress. That ongoing work means there may still be opportunities for investors.
While there's no guarantee that Ford's stock will rise significantly from current levels, here are three factors that could push Ford's stock even higher in the not-too-distant future.
Reason 1: Huge growth in China
Good news: Through the first six months of 2014, Ford's wholesale deliveries in China rose a whopping 35%, with 549,256 vehicles sold, as the company's aggressive expansion effort continued to find ready buyers.
But Ford's profits in its Asia Pacific region, which includes China, were a relatively modest $450 million over the same period. Why weren't they higher?
It's because Ford is aggressively reinvesting a lot of its earnings in the region. The company is in the midst of a massive expansion in Asia that is expected to cost about $5 billion by the time it's completed in a year or so.
Right now, there are five Ford factories under construction in China and India (which is growing into a major export hub for Ford), as well as a slew of new facilities to support distribution to Ford's fast-growing list of Chinese dealers.
That investment is taking a big bite out of Ford's profits. But that's OK: Once this investment cycle is complete, Ford's Asia Pacific region could add $2 billion or more to the Blue Oval's bottom line every year.
In 2013, Ford made $8.6 billion before taxes, with its Asia Pacific Africa region (as it was then called) contributing just $415 million. If Asia Pacific Africa had instead contributed $2 billion, that would have increased Ford's pre-tax result by over 18%.
Assuming that China's new-car market stays healthy and continues to grow as expected, there's a very good chance we'll see a boost like that over the next couple of years.
Reason 2: A turnaround in Europe
Ford's European operation lost $1.75 billion in 2012, $1.6 billion in 2013 — and the company has warned that it will post another loss in 2014.
But that loss will be smaller, Ford says, and the company expects to turn a profit in the region in 2015.
What's going on? Is Europe on an economic upswing?
To some extent, it is — new vehicles have risen from last year's two-decade lows, but they still remain well below pre-recession levels. But even if they stall again, Ford should be able to eke out a profit next year — thanks to an elaborate restructuring plan that is now hitting its stride.
Ford's plan for Europe has serious credibility with investors, because it's essentially the same game plan used by former CEO Alan Mulally and his team to fix Ford in North America over the last several years. It involves cost cuts -- Ford has closed two factories in the U.K., and a third in Belgium is set to close later this year -- as well as a slew of new models drawn from Ford's global product portfolio.
In the past, Ford's European product portfolio had been limited. But now, the company will offer more of its global products in Europe, including the Edge and the Mustang. By competing in more market segments, Ford will win more sales even if the market dips.
Ford expects to post a profit in Europe in 2015. I've spoken to both CEO Mark Fields and CFO Bob Shanks about that target, and I can tell you that they are both very confident that it will be hit.
As I noted above, Ford made $8.6 billion before taxes in 2013 -- despite a $1.6 billion loss in Europe. If Europe had just broken even last year, that would have increased Ford's pre-tax profit by almost 19%.
Reason 3: Ford is shaking up its most important product
This one is a big deal, and I should warn you up front: It could turn out to be a mixed blessing for Ford.
Ford's decision to make a radical change to the product that CEO Fields calls its "family jewel," the F-150 pickup, is a giant bet that could reshape the U.S. pickup market.
Ford's F-150, along with its Super Duty siblings, are America's best-selling vehicle line -- and Ford's most profitable by far, with margins believed to be in the range of 25%, possibly more.
Put another way, at an average selling price of around $40,000, that's $10,000 in profits per truck, give or take -- and Ford sold over 63,000 in July alone.
Nothing in Ford's global product portfolio generates anything like that much profit, month after month, year after year. And that makes Ford's decision to make the all-new 2015 F-150's body out of aluminum instead of steel a very big bet indeed.
It's clear why Ford is doing this: U.S. fuel-economy standards are tightening, and lighter-weight vehicles get better fuel economy. Ford says that in some configurations, the new F-150 will be as much as 700 pounds lighter than the current model. It hasn't released fuel-economy figures yet, but it has hinted at substantial gains.
That's a big deal. And it could mean a big boost in sales for Ford, as commercial-fleet buyers and individual consumers decide that a more fuel-efficient truck is a good idea -- and as rivals scramble to keep up. (Rival General Motors (NYSE: GM ) won't shift its trucks to aluminum until 2019, and Fiat Chrysler (NASDAQOTH: FIATY ) says it's taking a wait-and-see approach with its Ram pickup line.)
But there are a host of risks. Building a vehicle body out of aluminum requires different tooling and techniques than steel, and no automaker (anywhere, ever) has ever attempted to build aluminum-bodied vehicles at the rate that Ford builds pickups.
There's another concern: Aluminum is more expensive than steel. But Ford's price increases for mass-market versions of the new F-150 are quite modest. Will those fat profit margins take a hit? Or will Ford end up raising its prices in time -- and will future increases cost it sales?
And finally, there's this: Will pickup buyers -- who tend to be a pretty conservative lot -- go for an aluminum pickup?
Ford is confident they will. If the new trucks are launched without a hitch, and if the fuel-economy increases pan out -- two big "ifs," admittedly -- the company could see its already-dominant share of the most lucrative market segment of all grow further.
And while it's hard to quantify, that could turn out to give Ford's earnings in North America a substantial boost in time.
The upshot: Ford is on a solid course
There's a lot that could go wrong, of course -- if the U.S. were to slide into another recession, Ford's profits would be squeezed.
But Ford right now is a stable, well-run company with a strong balance sheet, competitive products, and big opportunities to increase profits overseas.
And good management counts for a lot: Even with a seemingly risky bet like the new aluminum F-150, there's a good reason to think Ford executives are holding a winning hand, even if we haven't seen all the cards yet: This management team's past bets, starting with Ford's dramatic North America turnaround, have paid off nicely so far.
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