Detroit's earnings parade kicks off before the bell on Thursday, when Ford Motor Company (F -3.74%) reports its fourth-quarter and full-year 2015 earnings.
What should we expect?
What Wall Street says: Analysts expect Ford to report that it earned $0.46 per share in the fourth quarter, after taxes but excluding special items, on revenue of $36.32 billion. That's up 77% from the $0.26 per share that Ford earned in the fourth quarter of 2014 on the same basis, but just a 1.2% increase in revenue.
What Ford says: Earlier this month, Ford revised its full-year guidance for 2015 in light of a recent accounting change that it said will increase its reported 2015 pre-tax profits by about $1.5 billion. The company now expects to report a "record" pre-tax profit for 2015 in the "upper half" of the $10 billion to $11 billion range.
Under its recently revised accounting standards, Ford's pre-tax earnings totaled $8.19 billion through the first three quarters of 2015. That suggests that its fourth-quarter pre-tax earnings will be no less than $2.3 billion, and possibly as much as $2.8 billion.
At $0.46 per share, Wall Street is looking for Ford's pre-tax earnings to come in around $2.7 billion.
What happened during the quarter: It was a good three months for the Blue Oval. Ford's U.S. sales rose 7.7% in the fourth quarter versus the same period of 2014. And sales of Ford's most profitable product line, the F-Series pickups, rose 9.7% over the same period.
That jump in pickup sales came after months of tight supplies caused by the complicated factory changeovers required to make the new-for-2015 F-150 pickup. Fortunately for Ford shareholders, strong SUV sales helped boost earnings while pickups sales were subdued. The good news is that those strong sales, of products like the new-for-2015 Edge and refreshed-for-2016 Explorer, continued during the fourth quarter.
Ford also did well in most of its overseas regions during the quarter. While China's slowing economy has hurt Ford's commercial-vehicle sales in the country, Ford's retail sales of cars and SUVs have continued to be strong despite the slowdown, with solid growth through the quarter. CFO Bob Shanks hinted strongly in November that Ford Asia Pacific would likely post a significant profit increase in the fourth quarter.
And after several years of challenges, Ford's sales (and lately, its market share) in Europe have been rising thanks to a slate of fresh products.
Ford's South America region continues to be a challenge because of difficult economic conditions in several key markets, including Brazil and Argentina. The unit is very likely to post a loss for the quarter -- but Ford has appeared to be managing the situation well, so losses are unlikely to be huge.
The upshot: What to expect
I think an optimistic outlook is warranted. The biggest single driver of Ford's bottom line is sales in North America, particularly in the U.S., and those were very strong during the quarter. The strength of Ford's fourth-quarter sales in Europe and Asia Pacific add to the reasons for optimism.
Wall Street's $0.46 per-share estimate is already pretty optimistic, but I bet Ford finds a way to beat it by a penny or two. We'll find out on Thursday morning.