Ford Needs to Rein In the Bulls

 | Jan 27, 2012 | 11:13 AM EST  | Comments
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Can Ford Motor (F) ever get it together? I know a lot of people are thinking that this company has gone from being the comeback kid to a serial underperformer and that the story is finished, kaput and never coming back.

I think that's wrong. In fact I think that what happened here is that the company over-promised and under-delivered.

Here's why...

First, the company should have preannounced a shortfall as soon as the year was over, or before it, as the book of business declined sharply in Europe because of the crisis and in Asia because of Thai flooding. I regard a miss of a nickel on a $0.25 basis pretty devastating and worthy of a callout before the actual day of earnings.

Second, though, I think that while the Thai flooding was unforeseeable, the whole world was expecting a decline in Europe, and the company should have been a little more prescient that this decline could occur.

Third, the company got beaten up on commodity increases that were pretty murderous, increases that could not be passed on to the consumer.

Finally, the company sent some mis-signals. While it is beginning to build a fabulous balance sheet -- a quarter of the market capitalization is net cash -- the company sent a signal that things are cooking when it boosted the dividend last quarter.

I know this is going to sound like optics, but I think the biggest issue Ford faces is tempering the enthusiasm of its supporters by guiding down sharply to a level that is more realistic and can be beaten.

In that sense, Ford is a little like serial underperformer Alcoa (AA), another company that does not restrain the bulls but instead lets them run loose to the detriment of the share price.

When you know that commodity costs haven't come down going into 2012, when you know that Europe is getting increasingly gloomy, this is the chance to reset the bar and tell analysts to take down estimates to a level that is far below what they think the company can earn.

It's just almost impossible, given the headwinds Ford has, to believe that it can come near making what it was able to earn in 2011. So now is the time for Ford to say, "Until Europe improves, we are not going to be able to do as well as we like, and your numbers are too high."

Until we get some realism in the numbers, we are going to continue to recommend buying the U.S. parts makers, as Ford confirmed that the domestic build could be as high as 14.5 million cars, a nice increase, and only secondarily buying the motors companies. Ford's Alan Mulally hasn't  yet figured out how to play "upod," which is under-promising and over-delivering, and that failure makes buying the stock just too difficult for now.

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