I'm beginning my series of picks and pans with a challenge.

When I read that GM ( GM) led Dow gainers last year, I got to wondering -- could the same thing happen to Ford ( F)?

Ford Motor Company, by many conventional measures, is an extreme value. Its problems, on the other hand, are monumental and well publicized.

Either way, Ford is getting a lot of attention these days. It's the most actively traded Big Board issue almost on a daily basis.

I share my picks and pans not only to evaluate individual investments but also to sharpen your skills in finding your own stock values.

In that spirit, I venture down the road to answer the questions: Has this venerable old name been beaten down far enough? Are we missing the value in this deal?

Value investors look beyond financial fundamentals into business and marketplace fundamentals that drive future value.

A high-P/E issue like Starbucks ( SBUX) can be considered a value because of its brand value and market leadership, which leads ultimately to growth and profits.

But Starbucks is a growth story. Ford, on the other hand, is clearly a story of managed decline.

The headlines continue to broadcast sales declines and the loss of the venerable No. 2 U.S. position to Toyota ( TM).

The question is, how well is that decline being managed, and can this $90 billion-a-year ship be righted? If so, there may be substantial rewards for Ford investors. But the risks are sizeable.

Click here for the video version of this story from Jennifer Openshaw.

As will become tradition, my picks and pans analysis offers three easy-to-digest points and counterpoints.

  • Strong franchise.

    The Ford brand remains strong, one of the strongest in the car business. Ford has extensive international operations, which should help as the dollar weakens.
  • Innovation.

    I'm especially attracted to Ford's leadership in the U.S.-made hybrid space, and wish they'd offer more. Hybrids would really help distinguish its product, move away from SUV and truck sales and add strength to the brand. Also I like the new "Sync" alliance with Microsoft (MSFT) to deliver Windows connectivity to cars, and I view Microsoft's willingness to partner with Ford as a strong hidden positive.
  • Cheap, cheap, cheap.

    Ford's total market capitalization is $13.5 billion. Now, where can you buy a company with $90 billion in sales for $13.5 billion? Yahoo! (YHOO) is valued at three times that. The price-to-sales ratio is 0.15, where a ratio of 1 is considered pretty good. And price-to-cash-flow is somewhere around 2, vs. 8 or 10 for a lot of other value plays.

  • Mortgaged to the hilt.

    Ford is drunk on debt -- $150 billion worth at last count. Now, a majority is tied to Ford Motor Credit, so it's more like a bank, traditionally debt financed, and you can't easily apply traditional measures. But the recent sale and asset pledge for still $25 billion more in debt isn't a good sign, even if it does accelerate restructuring.
  • Declining margins.

    Declining market share and sales have brought discounts and price erosion, hurting the top line, and poor cost absorption, shrinking margins and hurting the bottom line.

    Restructuring campaigns aim to line the cost structure up with sales. But are they going fast enough? Operating margins have shrunk to 10% from nearly 25% in the late 1990s.
  • No control of price and costs.

    I really struggle with companies that can control neither their prices nor their costs -- airlines are the poster-child example. Loss of price control reflects poor market acceptance and excessive competition.

    With Ford, poor cost control reflects poor labor relations and the ever-present health care burden, and, more recently, higher commodity prices.

Bottom line -- this one's really tough. Declining gross margins and excessive debt are canaries in the coal mine singing the tunes of ill business fortune. Any of the counterpoints alone could kill a potential value candidate, and Ford is victim of all three.

But perhaps this phoenix can rise from the ashes, as it did once already from the 1990-91 recession.

An alliance, division sale or labor concession would be a real jump-start. Some good news could propel this stock into the high teens or 20s with a 60-cent dividend -- 8% at today's price.

My bottom line: Ford is a pan for most investors, but might be a pick for a few adventure dollars a value investor can afford to lose. Either way, keep your eyes glued to the windshield.

Jennifer Openshaw, a passionate advocate for helping Americans improve their finances and build their personal fortunes, is CEO of The Millionaire Zone and America Online's personal finance editor. In addition to appearing regularly on TV shows such as "Oprah" and "Good Morning America" and on CNN, Openshaw is host of ABC Radio's "Winning Advice" and serves as an adviser to some of America's top corporations. Her new book, "The Millionaire Zone," will hit bookstores in April 2007.

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