Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

What Investors Should Know About Ford and GM's Secret Weapon

By Daniel Miller - Feb 25, 2018 at 3:02PM

You’re reading a free article with opinions that may differ from The Motley Fool’s Premium Investing Services. Become a Motley Fool member today to get instant access to our top analyst recommendations, in-depth research, investing resources, and more. Learn More

Find out the one key metric to watch.

Vehicle sales may be plateauing in the U.S. market, but Ford Motor Co. (F -3.86%) and General Motors (GM -5.50%) both have a secret weapon to help them through whatever comes next: their financial arms. Ford Credit and General Motors Financial (GMF) have grown in importance for Detroit's two largest automakers, but investors often overlook them. Let's review the role these financial divisions play in their companies, consider what could go wrong for them, and dig into a recent study that will help us gauge where they might be headed.

Why are Ford Credit and GMF important?

Ford's fourth-quarter numbers clearly reveal just how central Ford Credit is to the company. While the North American region of the automotive segment generated $1.6 billion in adjusted pre-tax profits, Ford's second-most-profitable entity was its financial services segment, which generated just under $600 million, far more than the profits it made in South America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and Asia Pacific regions combined. General Motors' results aren't as lopsided because it's still building up its financial division, but GMF generated record full-year revenues of $12.2 billion and posted a 50% gain in EBIT-adjusted earnings to $1.2 billion in 2017. 

It's easy to see why these financial arms benefit their companies when times are good, but investors have to remember that these divisions can flip to producing heavy losses when times are bad. Here's why.

When a car lease is issued, the automaker estimates what the residual value of the vehicle will be upon its return -- i.e., how much it will be able to get for it when it's auctioned off. That's a big factor in their decisions about how much they can charge for the leases. If the company estimates poorly, and vehicles don't generate the auction values they expect, profits take a hit. Below, we cans see the impact slightly higher residual values had in Q4. 

Graphic showing strong residual leases helping profitability.

Image source: Ford Motor Co.'s Jan. 24, 2018 fourth-quarter earnings presentation.

How investors should think about residual values

Seeing how a slight rise in residual values can impact results, it's easy to imagine a bad scenario such as the Great Recession, when demand for off-lease cars plummeted, sending auction prices down and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in annual losses. But how exactly can investors get any insights on where those metrics might go for specific automakers? Fortunately for us, J.D. Power's Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS) offers some clues.

Buick Preps for 2018 NAIAS in Detroit

Buick scored well in J.D. Power's most recent Vehicle Dependability Study. Image source: General Motors

Better vehicle dependability scores not only improve demand for those used models, they're also a big contributor to higher residual values, according to J.D. Power, which has compiled its VDS for 29 years and counting. The survey ranks General Motors' Buick marque highest among mass-market brands, and third-highest overall -- beating out some luxury lines, which is an impressive feat. Chevrolet also scored far above average, and ranked sixth overall out of 31. Ford's namesake brand scored just slightly under the industry average, while its luxury Lincoln marque scored slightly above average.

Investors should certainly keep their eyes on these how these financial divisions are doing, as they offer automakers a great source of profit and growth at a time when new vehicle sales are plateauing. However, those profits can disappear quickly if residual values drop, so surveys such as J.D. Power's VDS study can be invaluable tools for investors as they look to predict which way those numbers are heading.

Invest Smarter with The Motley Fool

Join Over 1 Million Premium Members Receiving…

  • New Stock Picks Each Month
  • Detailed Analysis of Companies
  • Model Portfolios
  • Live Streaming During Market Hours
  • And Much More
Get Started Now

Stocks Mentioned

Ford Motor Company Stock Quote
Ford Motor Company
$11.07 (-3.86%) $0.45
General Motors Company Stock Quote
General Motors Company
$31.61 (-5.50%) $-1.84

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

Related Articles

Motley Fool Returns

Motley Fool Stock Advisor

Market-beating stocks from our award-winning analyst team.

Stock Advisor Returns
S&P 500 Returns

Calculated by average return of all stock recommendations since inception of the Stock Advisor service in February of 2002. Returns as of 06/30/2022.

Discounted offers are only available to new members. Stock Advisor list price is $199 per year.

Premium Investing Services

Invest better with The Motley Fool. Get stock recommendations, portfolio guidance, and more from The Motley Fool's premium services.