The most frustrating thing about investing is that just when you believe you have it all figured out, you realize you don't. Sadly, that's more of a regular occurrence than an exception. Take Ford Motor Company's (NYSE:F) operations in Europe, for instance, which have long been expected to break even in 2015 -- and they would have, except that the sinking of Russia's economy came out of nowhere.
We had Ford's operations in Europe all figured out, until we didn't.
Let's take a closer look at Russia and how it affects Ford's operations in Europe as a whole, and see if we can learn anything from this situation.
Where did this come from?
Currently, Russia's ruble is collapsing and auto sales there are nosediving, which is having an obvious adverse effect on automakers.
"It's a bloodbath for everybody. All car manufacturers are losing money," Renault Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn told reporters in Japan in December, according to Reuters.
Russia is important for automakers and was expected to become the largest automotive market in Europe, though that's obviously been delayed. In fact, after becoming the second-largest automotive market in Europe, trailing only Germany, it's likely that when December sales are totaled, Russia will slip to third place, as the United Kingdom passes it for second.
The nosedive in new-car sales has led to multiple automakers slowing, or in some cases entirely halting, sales -- Renault-Nissan, Audi, and General Motors, among others.
Ford's sales in particular have taken a whacking, falling 40% to 56,807, through November 2014. Because of nosediving sales and a collapsing ruble, Ford noted that it wouldn't achieve its goal of breaking even in Europe in 2015. This was a punch in the gut to investors who have long witnessed a drag on Ford's EPS because of losses in Europe -- especially after investors experienced a brief quarter of profit there, seen below.
Unfortunately, problems in Europe and Russia go beyond sales figures.
One of Ford's largest obligations in 2012 was its underfunded pension plan, which at the time was underfunded by $18.7 billion. What determines the "obligation" amount from Ford is linked to discount rates. As interest rates rise, so do discount rates, which sends Ford's pension obligations lower -- thus requiring much less cash to be dumped into the pension fund.
That essentially means that as economies improve and interest rates rise, Ford will have significantly lower pension obligations, and could use the billions of cash it would have poured into the fund to distribute to shareholders through dividends or share repurchases, or invest in future growth.
The problem is that Russia's economy is struggling, as well as Europe as a whole, and that means Ford will have to continue pouring more capital into its pension fund internationally, further complicating the automaker's operations in Europe. So, in addition to nosediving sales in Russia, it's also more difficult for Ford's balance sheet to improve in certain areas.
While Russia's problems were largely unforeseen and have forced automakers to dial back their profitability estimates in Europe, it shouldn't change the thesis for long-term investors. In fact, Russia's stumbling economy is an example of why automakers like Ford must invest in emerging markets across the world. That way, in the future, these unexpected hurdles will impact bottom-line performances less and less.
If we can learn anything, it's that profitable growth from diverse markets is critical, even if you have to have short-term bumps in the road. Diverse profitability is great in an investing world where we only have it all figured out until we don't.