Ford Motor Co. posted fourth-quarter profit that fell short of analysts’ estimates as overseas operations dragged down results while a one-time tax gain resulted in the company’s biggest annual profit since 1998.
Ford reported its 11th consecutive profitable quarter, with net income of $13.6 billion, or $3.40 a share, compared with $190 million, or 5 cents, a year earlier. Excluding one-time items, the profit was 20 cents a share, trailing the 25-cent average estimate of 15 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.
It was the third straight annual profit for Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally, 66, who has improved quality and expanded the lineup with fuel-efficient models like the Fiesta subcompact. Net income was boosted by a non-cash gain of $12.4 billion from eliminating a valuation allowance against deferred tax benefits, Ford said.
“It was another good solid year, but the gains weren’t quite as dramatic as in previous years,” said Efraim Levy, an analyst for S&P Capital IQ, who has a “buy” rating on Ford. “It will get tougher going forward.”
Ford slid 4.5 percent to $12.21 at the close in New York. The shares are up 13 percent this year after falling 36 percent in 2011.
Ford removed the valuation allowance, created in 2006 as it began reporting operating losses, because it expects to be profitable in the future and to use the tax benefits, according to a U.S. regulatory filing last year. Ford lost $30.1 billion from 2006 to 2008, as truck and sport-utility vehicle sales collapsed and the economy fell into the worst recession since the Great Depression.
‘Level of Confidence’
“They’re telling the world that they’ve attained a level of confidence in their ability to generate substantial amounts of income for the foreseeable future,” said Robert Willens, a corporate tax specialist and president of Robert Willens LLC of New York. “It’s quite a positive, forceful statement on their ability to prosper going forward.”
Profit excluding some items for 2011 was $8.8 billion, or $1.51 a share, up $463 million from the previous year.
In the fourth quarter, the Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker was hamstrung by a weakening European market and flooding in Thailand that wiped out profits in its Asian operations, Chief Financial Officer Lewis Booth said today.
The fourth-quarter earnings miss was caused by “the external environment, the slightly greater impact than we anticipated of commodity costs, currency and the Thai floods,” Booth told reporters in Dearborn.
Ford spent $2.3 billion on commodities such as steel in 2011, more than the $2.2 billion it told analysts in October it would spend, Booth said.
The European market is deteriorating and Ford is not sure when it will turn around, Booth said. Ford declined to provide a forecast on whether it can make money in Europe this year.
“We think this has the potential to be another tough year economically in Europe,” Booth said on the “The Hays Advantage” on Bloomberg Radio. “We’re not making any predictions about Europe this year.”
There is too much automotive factory capacity in the region, which is causing carmakers to boost incentives, Booth said. Ford increased incentives in the fourth quarter, while still improving net prices, he said.
Ford said its pretax operating loss in Europe widened to $190 million from a loss of $51 million a year earlier. In Asia-Pacific and Africa, Ford reported a pretax operating loss of $83 million, down from a $23 million profit last year. For the full year, Ford lost $92 million in Asia-Pacific and Africa and it lost $27 million in Europe.
European Unit’s Prospects
“We’re obviously a little disappointed to be at just slightly worse than break-even for Europe,” Booth said in an interview. “We think of Europe as a solid business operating in a very difficult business environment. That business environment will turn at some stage.”
Ford’s outlook for Europe seems “a big optimistic,” said Matthew Stover, an analyst at Guggenheim Securities LLC in Boston. “We think that you’re going to have to see production reduced” and a loss for the year of $1.5 billion in Europe, he said.
Ford is on pace to meet its mid-decade goal of increasing global sales by 50 percent, Booth said. The automaker lost 34,000 vehicles of production to the Thai floods, which was more than it was expecting, he said.
“We expect overall to see Asia-Pacific to be steadily profitable, but we expect to see some spiking in the quarters because it is a volatile region,” the finance chief said. “We expect Asia-Pacific to be modestly profitable this year.”
Ford is building seven factories in the Asia-Pacific region and introducing new models in China and India, such as the EcoSport small SUV it introduced in New Delhi this month. This year in China, Ford will begin selling the Kuga SUV, which is based on the Escape SUV sold in the U.S.
“In the forward years, you can expect to see the pace in Asia-Pacific and Africa being relatively modest for the early part,” Booth said. “Then accelerating for the later part of the period as the plants come onstream and the new products come on stream.”
Ford said its fourth-quarter automotive operating margin fell to 2.2 percent from 3 percent a year earlier.
In North America, where Ford generates most of its sales and profits, the second-largest U.S. automaker reported pretax operating income of $889 million, up from $670 million last year. Ford’s U.S. sales rose 11 percent last year and it gained market share for the third consecutive year for the first time since 1970.
‘North American Company’
“Ford is still a North American company,” said Brian Johnson, an analyst with Barclays Capital. “In 2012, we’re looking for the U.S. sales rate to recover, their market share to remain solid and their pricing to remain solid with products like the Escape and the Fusion refreshed” with new styling.
Fourth-quarter sales rose 6.5 percent to $34.6 billion as Ford boosted North American production by 14 percent during the period to 674,000 cars and trucks. The average estimate for total fourth-quarter revenue was $33.5 billion, according to the average of four estimates.
Ford reiterated it will produce 675,000 cars and trucks in North America during the first quarter, up 18,000 vehicles from last year. Ford said today it will cut production in South America, Europe and Asia Pacific Africa this quarter.
Globally, Ford said it plans to produce 1.4 million cars and trucks in the first quarter, down 51,000 vehicles from last year.
For the year, Ford’s revenue rose 13 percent to $136.3 billion, compared with an average forecast of $134.7 billion from five analysts surveyed.
U.S. consumers paid an average of $32,028 for the company’s models last year, up 25 percent from 2002 and the highest price Ford vehicles have ever commanded, according to online auto researcher Edmunds.com.
Automotive debt, which excludes Ford Motor Credit, was $13.1 billion at year’s end, an increase from $12.7 billion on Sept. 30, the company said.
The debt rose in the quarter primarily because it tapped loans from the U.S. Department of Energy that boosted its obligations by $300 million, the automaker said. The federal loans are being used to produce fuel-efficient cars.
Ford has more debt than rivals because it borrowed $23 billion in late 2006, after Mulally arrived from Boeing Co. and before credit markets froze. That enabled the automaker to avoid the bailouts and bankruptcies that befell the predecessors of General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC in 2009.
The company will contribute $3.5 billion this year to its global pension plans, including $2 billion to the U.S. plan.
Ford said it will pay $2,450 to each of its 41,600 U.S. hourly workers for second-half 2011 profits.
“Ford’s doing everything right except getting their stock price up,” said Gary Bradshaw, a fund manager at Dallas-based Hodges Capital Management, which owns about 250,000 Ford shares. “They’ve got their costs down, good products, good engineering and good leadership. Ford can do surprisingly well this year.”