Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) will report third-quarter earnings on Friday. What should shareholders expect?
Wall Street analysts aren't optimistic, estimating that Ford will report a profit of just $0.19 a share, down from $0.45 a share in the third quarter of 2013. They also expect a small drop in Ford's global revenues, to $33.7 billion from $33.9 billion a year ago.
The pessimism isn't unwarranted. Late last month, Ford sharply reduced its previous guidance, cutting its 2014 profit estimate by about $1.5 billion.
So what's the deal? Is Ford in trouble?
Ford's challenges start with its all-new F-150
Ford isn't really "in trouble." But the company, like much of the rest of the industry, is facing challenges in some key overseas markets. And unlike most of its rivals, Ford's sales and profits in North America have been subdued -- thanks to its all-new pickups.
The all-new-for-2015 Ford F-150 won't start arriving at dealers for a month or two, but it has already had a big impact on Ford's sales this year -- and probably on its profits. As you've probably heard, the new F-150 features aluminum body panels, a first for a full-size pickup.
It's also a first for a vehicle produced in anything like the volumes generated by the two factories that build Ford's F-150. A vehicle with aluminum body panels requires different manufacturing techniques than a steel-bodied vehicle. Unlike steel, which can be welded or bolted into place, aluminum body panels are first bonded -- set in place with high-tech glue, essentially -- and then riveted.
No automaker has ever tried to do that with a high-volume product -- and Ford's F-Series pickups are America's best-sellers. Ford had to develop new tooling and techniques to build the new F-150s, and the changes that it's making to its two pickup factories go far beyond what it would typically have to do for a new model.
That means a lot of downtime. Ford's Dearborn Truck factory has been down since August. Its second factory near Kansas City will go down early next year. The downtime will cost Ford 90,000 units of production, Ford North America chief Joe Hinrichs has said, and he warned that Ford's full-year operating profit margin in the region will be around 8% -- despite much stronger margins in the first half of 2014.
To partially offset that lost production, Ford lowered its pickup incentives earlier this year. That cost it some sales, but helped preserve profits in the first and second quarters. But in the last few months, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler have stepped up the competitive pressure -- and analysts think that pressure may have cost Ford some profits.
As you can see from this chart, sales of Ford's F-Series line were actually down slightly in the third quarter, while both GM and Fiat Chrysler made significant year-over-year gains.
But a lull in Ford's truck sales is only one of the factors putting pressure on its near-term earnings.
Overseas challenges are also hitting Ford hard
Ford warned that its full-year results in Europe would be about $300 million worse than it had previously expected, likely to total about $1.2 billion by year-end, as conditions in Russia have deteriorated much more significantly than expected. Given that Ford Europe posted just $180 million in losses in the first half, the damage is likely to be significant in the third and fourth quarters.
Ford also said that it now expects to lose $1 billion in South America this year, as tougher-than-expected economic conditions in key markets like Brazil have hammered new-vehicle sales across the board. Ford South America lost $510 million in the first quarter and $295 million in the second, for a total of $805 million in the first half of 2014; Ford's guidance suggests that the losses will be lower this time around, but a profit isn't likely.
But the overseas news isn't all bad. China has been a great story for Ford, although its eye-popping growth rate has slowed (along with the wider market) recently. Ford Asia-Pacific region chief Dave Schoch said earlier this month that the region would report a pre-tax profit of about $700 million for the full year. $450 million of that came in the first half.
Things to watch when Ford reports
Long story short, Ford has given us ample reason to expect subdued earnings reports for both the third and fourth quarters of 2014, and possibly into 2015 as well.
I say "possibly" because much depends on the 2015 F-150s. It would not be a surprise if it takes longer than expected for Ford to ramp up its Dearborn Truck Plant to full speed with the all-new trucks. I expect Ford to give some sort of guidance around its new trucks in tomorrow's earnings call; that will be the biggest thing to watch for as Friday unfolds.
What else? A status update on Europe will be important. Ford lowered its 2015 guidance for Europe from breakeven to a small loss; its turnaround effort continues to do well, but Russia has complicated things.
The takeaway for shareholders is this: Ford is doing some big things that should set it up well for longer-term success, but that will cost it in the near term. Don't be surprised -- or alarmed -- when some of those near-term costs hit Ford's bottom line in Friday's earnings report.