What Does Ford Need? Global Growth

DETROIT ( TheStreet) -- Ford ( F) today is a company on a roll in a growing industry, guided by a celebrity CEO likely to be viewed as one of the best in history.

Two big questions face Ford. One is how long past normal retirement age will Alan Mulally, who is 68, continue to work there. At this point, the question seems a bit tired since Ford and Mulally have said repeatedly that Mulally will work for Ford at least through 2014, while Microsoft ( MSFT), often cited as a Mulally destination, needed to name a new CEO yesterday.

The bigger question is: What happens in the global economy? As Mark Fields, Ford's chief operating officer and Mulally's heir apparent, said on the automaker's third-quarter earnings call last month, after a reporter asked about Ford's projected rapid production growth, "Obviously there's a lot of factors that we control (and) there's a lot of factors that we don't control. I'd say we feel good about the factors we do control, and we'll manage through the business environment and continue to monitor it, keeping our goals in mind."

Ford forecasts it will boost wholesale global deliveries to 8 million over the next three years, from 6 million today.

"We're quite focused on growth right now," Fields said. "Keep in mind, year to date we have grown our wholesales 13% in 2013, and that's on top of growth in 2012. So clearly that's going to have to be driven by products, and as you know, our product pipeline is very full."

Much of the growth is in Asia, where Ford is rapidly increasing manufacturing capacity to 2.9 million units, up from about 1.5 million units in 2011. Europe's economy, by all accounts, is turning around or at least has bottomed out, and hopes for the U.S. remain high, although growth is expected to moderate.

"The key leading indicators of U.S. auto demand are pointing to more moderate growth in 2013, after the unusually strong 11% growth since 2010," wrote UBS analyst Colin Langan in a report issued Tuesday. In 2009, U.S. light-vehicle sales reached a 27-year low of 10.3 million. This year, Langan expects sales of 15.5 million units, up 7% from 2012.

Looking ahead, Langan said he expects 2014 sales of 16 million units. He called the 2010-13 growth "an outlier" and said "our 3% (growth) 2014 forecast is consistent with expected 3% GDP growth."

Langan has buys on Ford and GM ( GM). "Both are trading at low valuations and will benefit from year-end pension re-measurements," he wrote. "More importantly, 2014 profits are less dependent on U.S. sales growth as GM should benefit from the ramp-up of its full-size pickups, and Ford should benefit from positive US and Asia Pac earnings growth."

S&P Capital IQ analyst Efraim Levy also has a buy on Ford, with a target price of $19. The shares closed Thursday at $17.09, up 32% for the year. In a recent report, Levy wrote that "expected health U.S. and China growth (should outweigh) weakness in Europe and slower growth in some other regions"

Despite profit pressures in China due to capacity investments, continued losses in Europe and pressure on South America operations, Levy wrote that he "expects Ford to benefit from more rapid product introductions, improved volume, more efficient capacity utilization and cost-cutting efforts."

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

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