During the most recent financial crisis, Ford (NYSE:F) stood out from its automaker peers by not taking a bailout from the U.S. government, and since then, the company has fought its way back to profitability and relevance. After enduring losses from 2006 to 2008, it has been solidly profitable every year since. It reinstated its dividend in 2012 after a five-year suspension, and has aggressively raised it every year since.
There are a few catalysts that I think will propel Ford stock higher in the coming years, and with a forward yield of over 4%, investors will be rewarded while they wait for these plans to come to fruition.
North America, Middle East and Africa, and Asia-Pacific
Three of Ford's five regions were profitable in Q1 2015. Of these three profitable zones, the lion's share of pre-tax profits came from North America -- $1.34 billion of a total $1.52 billion -- with Middle East and Africa contributing $79 million and Asia-Pacific adding $103 million.
In the Q1 press release, management remained optimistic about the future of the business in North America, saying, "Ford expects North America to have a very strong year in 2015, with substantial top-line growth, higher pre-tax profit, and an improved operating margin." Lower gasoline prices should contribute to higher sales for larger trucks and SUVs, which provide much better margins for the company than smaller vehicles do. Of course, the pendulum for gas prices can swing the other way, but Ford has been focused on making more fuel-efficient trucks to prepare for this eventuality.
South America and Europe
The remaining two regions contributed losses, with South America ($189 million) and Europe ($185 million) weighing down the company's overall results. There are promising signs in both regions that losses can be lessened and that profitability may be around the corner.
Ford has been instituting a plan called "One Ford" since 2007, and part of that plan involves catering cars to local tastes. The Ford Ka, a small two-seat economy car, helped Ford increase its market share in South America by 1.1% in Q1. Additionally, management reports, "In Brazil, EcoSport and Fusion continue to lead their segments, and this quarter Ford led the light and semi-light truck segments."
Europe has been a similar story. The general economic malaise that still hangs over much of Europe has been a headwind against Ford in the region, but the company continues to press on. Wholesale volume was up 2% compared to Q1 2014.
Helping unprofitable regions to just break even would provide a substantial boost to Ford's bottom line. Management is optimistic that the investments it's making in South America and Europe will make these regions profitable in the years to come. Investors can choose to wait for the turnarounds in these two regions to become more clear, but those who invest now and hang on will benefit from fairly substantial dividend payments in the meantime.
Pay me to wait while you figure this out
I trust Ford's management to succeed in the regions that are already profitable while turning around operations in South America and Europe. It's unclear how long this will take, but in the meantime a $0.15-per-share quarterly dividend should help provide investors some comfort. At recent levels, this amounts to a greater than 4% yield, which is compelling in a world where 10-year Treasuries are providing investors with only around 2.5%.
The trailing-12-month payout ratio is 59.6%, which provides some assurance that the dividend won't be cut in the foreseeable future. Ford's dividend has risen from $0.05 per quarter in 2012 to the current level, and I would expect another increase about a year from now.
Ford's dividend makes it a relatively conservative investment. If management can continue to improve operations, there is substantial upside for the stock. Its forward P/E ratio is 7.81, which is well below that of the overall market. Think about an investment in Ford today as buying a slightly risky bond that yields over 4% and receiving potential capital appreciation along with it.
This is a much different Ford from the one that emerged from the financial crisis beaten and bloodied (but unbowed). An investor looking for a solid dividend stock with upside potential should consider adding Ford to his or her watch list.