This American Car Maker Has 35% Upside Potential

In the final showdown of the film Wall Street, Bud Fox reminds his former mentor, Gordon Gekko to “…never get emotional.” As an investment professional, I remind myself that constantly.

Recently, I started looking at Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F), the world’s second largest auto manufacturer. As a historical figure, Henry Ford was truly a despicable character. From a total disregard for labor to openly financing racist propaganda, his actions remind me of the despicable captain of industry, Montgomery Burns, from The Simpsons.

But he built a helluva business.

Typically, I’m not crazy about car stocks. At times, they’re almost too sensitive to the whims of the economy and the consumer, which is often too much so for my taste and investment philosophy.

However, a confluence of conditions in the United States and around the world has made the stock relevant — not to mention it’s a bargain.

Recently, my colleague David Sterman, outlined the bull case for Ford’s archrival General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM) in a side by side comparison of the two firms. I’ll examine that later.

The Stars Align
The car business, both domestic and global, could not be in a better position.

The average age of a passenger automobile in the United States is 11 years old, the domestic economy is improving considerably and energy prices are falling thanks to oversupply resulting from the American fracking revolution.

In fact, the prognosis for American new car sales is so encouraging that an analyst at Morgan Stanley predicts the collapse of used car prices due to favorable conditions for new car buyers.

#-ad_banner-#Globally, the opportunity is even riper as growth in emerging markets continues to fuel the expansion of a new middle class society. Naturally, an automobile is often at the top of a middle class shopping list.

In the United States, Ford’s best opportunity lay with its premiere light truck, the F-150. Thanks to moderating fuel prices and aggressive new design, the flagship truck has won rave reviews from critics and consumers. The company also has pricing power on this vehicle and expects to increase prices by 5% — a move that shouldn’t kill demand.

On the global front, the smallish Ford Fusion remains one of the bestselling vehicles in the world. Although the margins in the passenger car segment are not nearly as attractive as trucks and SUVs, the proliferation of an affordable, dependable car will strengthen the brand. That’s worth the tradeoff.

All About The Brand
While watching television with my 12 year-old son — a bright, hardworking, sensible, plugged in type (takes after his mom) — he made a laser sharp observation: “Dad, isn’t every month Chevy truck month?” Bingo, son.

Before diving into the numbers, it’s clear that one of the major differences between Ford and GM is branding. Over the years, Ford has cultivated a solid brand — from “toughness” in the truck line to the sexy, now senior citizen, Mustang — and is currently enjoying a renaissance.

Ford’s 1980s “Quality is Job 1” slogan still rings true. GM’s recent ignition switch debacle sparked a massive recall and conjured up the ghosts of poor quality that continue to plague the company.

But the numbers speak for themselves.

Ford Dominates GM On A Five-Year Annual Average Basis
  Ford GM
Earnings Per Share Growth 21% -9%
Cash Flow Growth 8.30% -5%
Return on Equity 35% 19.50%

The real hidden gem in Ford’s business is Ford Motor Credit. Unlike the competition, FMC didn’t underwrite or insure mortgages during the lead up to the 2008 financial crisis. As a result, Ford weathered the storm. No government bailout needed. No crippled financial subsidiary to spin off.

Culture Club
One of the most striking distinctions between Ford and GM is culture.

First off, the Ford family is still hands-on with Bill Ford, Jr., after serving as CEO, sitting as chairman of the board.

Ford’s recently retired CEO, Alan Mulally, who did a remarkable job at the helm, cut his teeth at The Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA). His successor, Mark Fields, although spending the last 25 years in Ford’s international divisions, came to the company from International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM).

GM CEO Mary Barra, although a pathfinder as the first female CEO of a Big-Three automaker, has virtually spent her entire life with GM. Her dad worked for the now-defunct Pontiac brand, and she interned at the company in high school and college — GM is all she knows. I’m not saying she’s not capable, but for decades, GM’s closed management culture has been thought to be the root of its quality control and poor financial management problems.

Risks To Consider: Although the U.S. economy seems to be humming along, fears of a global slowdown continue to spook large global brands like Ford. In fact, the company pre-announced softer earnings per share for this year — $1.12 a share versus last year’s $1.62. However, they expect 2015 to get back on track with projections of $1.61 per share and growth returning with $1.73 for 2016.

Action To Take –> Stacked side by side, Ford is the clear winner thanks to consistently solid operating results, focused branding and a culture of quality. Shares currently trade at around $14, with a forward price-to-earnings ratio of 12.5 (based on expected final 2014 numbers) and an attractive dividend yield of 3.5%.

With continued growth in the U.S. economy and forward growth anticipated from the rest of the world over the next few years, 2015 earnings per share of $1.62 is attainable. That means a 12-to-18 month price target of $18 is a reasonable expectation. When considering the dividend, the result would be a total return in excess of 35%.

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