U.S. sales of Ford's F-Series rose a so-so 5% in the first quarter. But growth elsewhere could help power Ford past bullish expectations when it reports on Thursday. Image source: Ford Motor Company

Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) will report its first-quarter earnings before the bell on Thursday, April 28. Here's a look at what to expect.

What Wall Street expects
Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expect Ford to report earnings of $0.46 per share, double its $0.23 per-share result in the year-ago period, when Ford was hit by unfavorable exchange-rate swings and supplies of the then-new F-150 were still very tight.

The analysts expect Ford's revenue to come in at $35.76 billion, up 12.5% from a year ago, on incremental year-over-year sales increases in the U.S., Europe, and China (and a somewhat more stable exchange-rate environment).

What to watch for
In North America, fleet sales have been a concern. Ford's U.S. sales rose a nice 9% in the first quarter, but much of that gain was powered by a huge jump in sales to rental-car fleets. While some rental-fleet sales are considered a good thing, too many cause investors to worry: Not only are rental cars sold at big discounts, but they depress used-car prices (and thus increase leasing costs) when the rental companies dump them two or three years later.

Ford said the bump in rental-fleet sales was simply a matter of the timing of some deliveries, and that for the full year, rental car deliveries as a percentage of overall U.S. sales would be roughly flat versus 2015. We'll be looking for some more guidance and discussion around that point during the earnings call -- and we'll also be looking to see if all of those low-profit rental-car sales hurt Ford's operating margin in North America.

In South America, all eyes will once again be on Brazil, where a severe recession has crushed new-car sales in the region's most important market. Ford, like rival General Motors (NYSE:GM), has been a player in South America for decades and has major investments in the region, but those operations have been running deep in the red as of late. The Blue Oval lost $832 million in South America last year; can it improve on that result in 2016?

Ford managed a small profit in Europe last year after several years of steep losses. But new Ford Europe chief Jim Farley wasn't satisfied: The company announced another round of restructuring in the region, and is adding more products (read: SUVs) to its regional portfolio in an effort to boost sales and margins. Farley and CEO Mark Fields have set a long-term target of 6% to 8% for operating margins in Europe -- an ambitious target after the last few years. Ford's sales in Europe rose 8.4% in the first quarter, outpacing the overall market -- we'll be looking to see how well that sales gain translated into profit.

Global sales of high-profit Ford performance cars like the Mustang were quite strong in the first quarter. That could lift margins. Image source: Ford Motor Company

Results in Ford's Asia Pacific region are dominated by its fast-growing operations in China. The new-car market in China has been slowing, and global auto brands are coming under increasing pressure from low-priced domestic Chinese alternatives. But some segments are still hot -- namely crossover SUVs, a Ford strength.

Ford's sales in China were up 14% in the first quarter, driven largely by big gains for familiar SUV models such as the Kuga (twin to the Escape), Edge, and Explorer. Sales of Ford's SUVs as a group were up 38% in the first quarter form a year ago, more than offsetting a sagging commercial-vehicle market (where Ford is also a significant player). A year ago, Ford earned $360 million from its two Chinese joint ventures. We'll be looking to see if Ford managed to find year-over-year growth despite pricing pressures.

The upshot: Global growth is slowing, but Ford should post a good quarter
I think there's likely to be a fair amount of good news in Thursday's report. I think Ford is likely to beat Wall Street's $0.46 per-share profit estimate by a few pennies, as profit margins in China and losses in South America both come in a bit better than analysts expect.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.