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Ford: A Tale of Two Continents

DETROIT ( TheStreet) -- The new Ford (F - Get Report) C-Max compact hybrid crossover is "flying off the showroom lots," said Chief Financial Officer Bob Shanks. But in Europe auto sales are so weak that Ford had to delay introduction of the Mondeo, a Fusion variant, from 2013 to 2014.

The juxtaposition of the reception, or lack thereof, for the two new vehicles summarizes the situation Ford outlined Tuesday on its fourth-quarter earnings call - record profit in North America combined with continued losses in Europe's ugly auto economy.

The European outlook is even worse than it was in October, when Ford announced a restructuring plan that included closing three plants and taking a $1.5 billion loss for the year. On Tuesday, the loss in Europe turned out to be $732 million for the fourth quarter and $1.8 billion for the year, and Ford said the loss will grow to $2 billion in 2013.

Can growth in North America overcome the stall in Europe? Investors don't think so. In midday trading, Ford shares were down 82 cents to $12.96.

Ford shares soared in the latter part of the fourth quarter of 2012. They closed at $10.50 on Nov. 15 and ended the year at $12.95. Shares started 2013 at $13.23 and rose as high as $14.30 in mid-January. While this is not at all the Apple (APPL) story, it seems clear that the optimism about the automaker's overall short-term outlook has confronted a relatively disappointing reality.

On the earnings call, Shanks detailed the contrasting continents' situations, forecasting that European full-year industry volume will be at the lower end of an estimated 13 million to 14 million units, and that Ford will have to bear the cost of restructuring, investment in new product and accelerated depreciation for plants that will close. Delaying the introduction of Mondeo, for instance, represents an opportunity cost of several hundred million dollars, he said.

Looking ahead, Ford anticipates it will all pay off some day, just as it did in North America. By mid-decade, the company expects it will be generating profits in Europe.

"We will continue to look at the way we transformed the business in North America," said CEO Alan Mulally. "The most important thing is to continue to invest in the products. We can bring the very best cars and trucks to Europe even with the current slowdown, (and) also continue to be there with a complete family of cars as the recovery starts to happen."
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