Earnings Preview: Ford May Post Its Best Yearly Profit in a Decade

Ford Motor dealership
Ford Motor dealership

Last year was a bang-up time for Ford Motor (F), despite below-average industry sales. The second-largest domestic automaker managed to outsell rival Toyota Motor (TM) nearly every month during 2010, and it retook the No. 2 spot in U.S. sales for the year.

More importantly, those improved sales translated into healthy profits. The Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker reported three consecutive profitable quarters in 2010 and is expected to post its highest annual profit in more than a decade, when it releases its earnings Friday morning.

Analysts forecast that Ford will earn a profit of 48 cents a share on revenue of about $30.6 billion, according to a consensus estimate compiled by Thomson Reuters. That translates into an expected pretax profit of $8 billion in 2010, the best Ford has seen since 1999.

Ford's 2010 results are expected triple those of 2009 when it earned $2.7 billion -- although unit sales improved just 19%, to 1.94 million vehicles from the previous year's 1.66 million units, according to Edmunds.com.

More Profit From Fewer Cars

"We had a great year financially," Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford told a University of Michigan business-school audience last week, according to The Wall Street Journal. "I think there are substantial changes in the auto industry that should make us less vulnerable" to boom-and-bust sales cycles.

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Those changes include the automaker's ability to earn a profit during lean sales years, the kind witnessed in 2009 and 2010. The U.S. auto industry sold about 11.6 million vehicles last year, second only to 2009 as the worst sales year in recent memory. By comparison, in the middle of the last decade, automakers roughly sold 16 million to 17 million cars and light trucks annually.

U.S. vehicles sales are expected to improve this year as the economy continues to slowly brighten. Ford should benefit more than most from the recovery. Its turnaround plan is firmly in place, and it has a lead in bringing new models to market compared with rivals General Motors (GM) and Chrysler Group, both of which lost product-development time to their bankruptcy reorganizations.

Despite the rosy forecast, Ford still faces some headwinds. Those include revamping its moribund Lincoln brand to better compete with luxury marques such as Lexus and BMW.

Ahead of Schedule

And along with GM and Chrysler, Ford will soon begin negotiating a new contract with the United Auto Workers. Higher prices for commodities and the steadily increasing cost of gasoline also present challenges, as does reviving Ford's flagging European operations.

Still, for the moment at least, Ford can revel in a turnaround that has come about two years sooner than anticipated. That, undoubtedly, has led to brighter smiles around Ford headquarters, especially on the face of CEO Alan Mulally, who is largely credited with Ford's stunning revival.

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