Sounds like more bad news is on the way for auto workers in Detroit. Is it good news for Wall Street? Investors cheered Wednesday when the Detroit News reported Ford ( F) is about to detail a plan to close at least 10 plants and cut 25,000 to 30,000 hourly jobs in North America. Shares of Ford were recently up 11 cents, or 1.4%, to $8.22. The newspaper cited sources who had knowledge of the proposal. As part of the carmaker's overall strategy, the "Way Forward," Ford is also formulating a program to revive its Lincoln and Mercury brands, along with its namesake line, the report said. The report comes less than a week after The Wall Street Journal said Ford would shut five factories that have about 7,500 workers. Last month, Ford, based in Dearborn, Mich., said it would eliminate 4,000 salaried positions, in addition to 2,750 salaried jobs cut earlier this year. Like its bigger rival General Motors ( GM), Ford has been grappling with high fuel expenses, a costly labor force and aggressive competition from foreign automakers. GM itself recently said its restructuring plan would lead to the company cutting about 30,000 jobs. "This is definitely a step in the right direction for Ford, since they obviously have overcapacity and they're losing market share. But it doesn't really solve their cost issues," said Argus Research analyst Kevin Tynan. "It just makes them a smaller company with the same problems. So, it's better, but no silver bullet." Tynan noted that Ford announced a large restructuring plan in early 2002, and the latest plan being circulated in the media sounds like more of the same. "If they're not gaining market share, or at least stemming the tide of losing market share, then we're going to be doing this all over again in another three years," Tynan said. "Ford and GM are not the low-cost producers in the market, and we have no reason to have much confidence that they will design and build new products that people really want to pay for."
Competitors in North America that have been transplanted from foreign markets, like Toyota ( TM) and Honda ( HMC), have invested in smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles that have gained favor with consumers. Meanwhile, as they steadily gain market share, their labor costs are lower, because their workers are not unionized, and they're not burdened by heavy debt loads, rising health care costs and giant pension costs. Ford has $141.7 billion in long-term debt on its balance sheet, and its pension and retiree benefit plans are underfunded by about $46 billion. With $22 billion in cash, the company doesn't face the threat of a near-term liquidity crisis, but analysts say the competitive threat still looms large. "Although upcoming restructuring initiatives involving a health care agreement with the United Auto Workers, plant closures, and continued downsizing of Ford's white-collar workforce could provide a short-term boost to the company's stock price, the already tough conditions in the North American auto industry aren't likely to let up anytime soon," said Morningstar analyst John Novak in a recent research report.