There were no big surprises in Ford's (NYSE:F) fourth-quarter and full-year earnings report last week. That's because Ford CEO Mark Fields and CFO Bob Shanks were careful to give investors good guidance: They said earnings would be down because of the costs of new-product launches, and they were right.
Ford earned $6.3 billion before taxes last year, a significant drop from the $8.6 billion it earned in 2013. But Fields and Shanks wanted us to know something important: 2015 should look a lot better.
Here are five more things that Ford management wants its shareholders to know, from its fourth-quarter earnings conference call on Jan. 29.
Ford got a lot done last year
CEO Mark Fields started off last week's call by touting Ford's achievements in 2014. The message was this: Ford's earnings were down, but that money was spent on a lot of new products that should generate good profits in 2015 and beyond.
Here's what Fields said:
We launched 24 all-new or significantly refreshed products globally last year. This included the all-new F-150, which was awarded the Truck of Texas and named the North American International Auto Show Truck of the Year earlier [in January]. Deliveries and sales began in December.
Those launches also included the all-new 50th anniversary Mustang, Escort, Ka, Transit, and Lincoln MKC. Our best-selling midsize SUV, the Ford Explorer, debuted its new look at the L.A. Auto Show and will be available for customers in markets around the world later this year. We also revealed the all-new Ford Everest in Asia-Pacific.
You may not be familiar with all of those product names, so here's some context. The Escort is a new affordable compact car for the Chinese market, whereas the Focus that Americans are familiar with is positioned as a premium model. The Ford Ka is a minicar produced in Brazil, where it's very popular. The Everest is a rugged midsize, truck-based SUV that Ford sells in a number of Asian markets.
North America will look a lot better in 2015
Fields' list of 2014 product launches started with the all-new F-150, for good reasons. The disruption involved in launching that new truck was a big part of why 2014's earnings were down -- but its success and profitability are a big part of why Ford expects its 2015 earnings to be a lot higher.
Here's what Fields said last week:
For 2015, our company outlook for pre-tax profit, automotive revenue and operating margin is unchanged from our September Investor Day guidance. We expect company pre-tax profit to range from $8.5 billion to $9.5 billion, with automotive revenue and automotive operating margin higher than 2014, which is largely driven by our new products and capacity. And today we are improving our outlook for automotive operating-related cash flow from positive to higher than 2014.
Ford is committed to returning cash to shareholders -- but in a prudent way
It seems to be a point of pride for Ford to pay a good dividend. But Ford has also learned the hard lessons taught by Detroit's recent history: It will only return cash to shareholders when it can prudently afford to do so.
That was a point hammered home by now-retired CEO Alan Mulally, who refused to restore Ford's dividend until he felt the company could afford it. Fields, Mulally's successor, wants shareholders to know that he has learned that lesson well -- but he also wants shareholders to know that Ford will ensure that they share in the company's success.
Ford raised its dividend in 2014 and bought back some stock -- and it has already announced another dividend boost in 2015. Here's how Fields put it:
Consistent with our plan to provide regular and growing dividends that are sustainable over an economic or business cycle, we increased our 2014 quarterly dividend by 25% and as you know, we announced an additional 20% increase earlier this month. We also completed our share repurchase program that reduced our diluted shares by about 3%.
Ford's recent U.S. market share drop was just a blip
As you can see in this slide from Ford's earnings presentation, the company lost some U.S. market share in the fourth quarter.
Ford wants us to know that that drop was caused by short supplies, mostly of pickups, and not slumping demand. They also want us to know that we should expect a rebound once Ford dealers have good supplies of 2015-model F-150s. (In fact, we saw some signs of that rebound in January.)
Here's what CFO Bob Shanks said during the earnings call:
Our U.S. market share deteriorated 1.1 percentage points [in the fourth quarter] to 14.3%. That was largely retail-related. This primarily reflects a lower F-150 share, as we continue to balance share with transaction prices and stocks during the transition to all new F-150.
Earnings will rise in 2015, but they won't follow Ford's usual pattern
As I said above, Ford is pretty good at managing Wall Street's expectations. Ford's historical pattern has been to post its strongest profits in the first and (especially) second quarter, with somewhat lower profits later in the year. That's the normal cycle of its business.
What Ford wants its investors to know right now is that 2015 isn't going to look like that. They even included this graphic in their earnings presentation to make the point:
What's going on here? Here's how Fields explained it:
Slide 28 shows, directionally, that the calendarization of our profits in 2014 will not be consistent with our typical historical trend. In North America, the all-new F-150 changeover and downtime at the Kansas City plant will affect first quarter results.
Ford has already changed over one of its two truck plants, in Dearborn, Michigan, to make the all-new 2015 F-150. The factory was closed for a total of 12 weeks while that happened. Right now, its other truck factory, near Kansas City, is undergoing the same conversion.
Fields went on to say:
We also will incur costs and lost volume in the first half of the year related to our seven 2015 product launches, including the Edge and Explorer. And we expect to see the benefit of these launches in the second half of 2015. In Asia-Pacific, we are leveraging Ford's global product portfolio to introduce 18 new vehicles in 2015. And this will result in lower first-half results, as we continue to invest in four new plants that will bring new capacity on line for the second half of this year.