Ford ( F) had a chance to put its best foot forward at the Detroit auto show in December, but now the struggling automaker has to show investors the full monty. It's not going to be pretty. Shares of the No. 2 U.S. auto manufacturer have climbed nearly 5% since the beginning of December. But when Ford reports its fourth-quarter results Thursday, it's expected to show huge losses for a period when sales cratered, and some analysts say the stock will give back its gains. To be sure, much of the negativity is priced into shares of Ford at this point. And new CEO Alan Mulally is enjoying a grace period with analysts as he gets his bearings in his new post. But observers say Ford probably doesn't have much more to show investors in the way of cost cuts, and its sales are headed for further weakness as the economy potentially slows in 2007. "In its weakened position, Ford is very vulnerable to any wear and tear that might show up in the economy later this year," says Erich Merkle, an analyst with the auto consulting firm IRN. "We're forecasting a consumer slowdown in terms of vehicle demand, and Ford's sales results going forward may be especially unnerving to people because it could show double-digit declines."
Analysts expect Ford to post a fourth-quarter loss of $1.6 billion, or 97 cents a share, before special charges, according to Thomson First Call. That would put its losses for 2006 on that basis at $2.4 billion, or $1.34 a share. Add on charges related to the company's restructuring, and the losses on Ford's bottom line will be much deeper. All that red ink came amid a collapse in sales volume and pricing levels of Ford's most profitable trucks. "Much of the demand for full-sized or mid-sized truck-based SUVs, such as the Ford Expedition, the Lincoln Navigator, the Ford Explorer and the Mercury Mountaineer, melted away as gas prices escalated in the early months of 2006," wrote Burnham Securities analyst David Healy in a recent research note. "Buyers realized that these metal monsters were only marginally more useful than crossover SUVs at half to two-thirds the price," he added. "At the same time, the threat of new competition for Ford's vital F-series pickup trucks caused a sharp reduction in volume, yet the full competitive effect of GM's ( GM) and Toyota's ( TM) new full-sized pickups are still to be felt." The fourth quarter marks the first full reporting period for Mulally, who joined Ford in September after running a successful turnaround effort at Boeing ( BA). "Mulally continues to be in a honeymoon period," says Lehman Brothers analyst Brian Johnson. "Even if the earnings are worse than expected
on Thursday , the results are not likely to move the stock down too much. We on the Street are giving him some time to fix it."
But Argus Research analyst Kevin Tynan says the results could erase the recent stock gains created by the positive vibes left over from the auto show, where Ford had a chance to show off its glitziest product innovations even though they have little relevance in the market at this point. "The auto show is like spring training," says Tynan. "Everyone is undefeated, and no products have failed yet. But it's not reality. We'll see reality on Thursday." In addition to the buzz created by the auto show, Ford shares have benefited from media speculation about a potential alliance with Toyota, which is expected to pass the company this year as the No. 2 seller in the U.S. Also, word has circulated of a plan to create a fund that would allow the United Auto Workers union to assume responsibility for the retiree health care liabilities of Detroit's Big Three automakers. But analysts say neither prospect is anywhere close to being realized, and investors aren't likely to hear much about them from Ford on Thursday. "We'll probably just get another update on the turnaround plans that won't be much more than a recap of the progress report given when Ford announced its financing plan," says Johnson. In late November, Ford announced a financing deal worth $18 billion that will provide its struggling operations with a better cash cushion by using its U.S. auto plants and substantially all of its other domestic automotive assets and intellectual property as collateral. It also tacked on a $3 billion convertible note offering.
Meanwhile, the company has achieved some landmark cuts in its cost structure by buying out 38,000 hourly employees, shuttering plants and winning some early health care concessions from the UAW. "We'll probably get the company line about how wonderful their plan is and how flawlessly it's being executed, but there are still a lot of problems when it comes down to the product side," Tynan says. "We're getting to the stage in the game where a lot of the easy work has been done. So if you need additional structural cost reductions, where do you get them now? The buyout is done, the health care concessions are done, and you're leveraged up to your eyeballs. Where does it come next?" Sooner or later, Ford will have to get a boost from its auto sales, but analysts expect conditions in the global auto industry to get tougher in 2007. Also, results at Ford Credit, the company's finance arm, are expected to weaken. "The hard work on the product side and the hard work on the cost side still lies ahead," says Tynan.