May 13, 2009 / 10:52 PM / 9 years ago

Ford walks tightrope amid industry downturn

DETROIT (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co executives face stockholders on Thursday to detail the automaker’s plans to complete a turnaround without resorting to U.S. government help and steer clear of the industry collapse now swallowing rivals General Motors Corp and Chrysler.

After a wild ride over the past year, Ford investors have seen the automaker’s stock increase three-fold since mid-February as the company pressed ahead of its cross-town rivals with agreements to restructure its debt and cut its obligations to the United Auto Workers union.

Ford, the only U.S. carmaker not operating on emergency U.S. government loans, mortgaged itself to the hilt in late 2006 to amass cash for a turnaround that remains on track as Chrysler was forced into bankruptcy on April 30. GM could join Chrysler in Chapter 11 within weeks.

When Ford’s top executives open the automaker’s annual meeting in Wilmington, Delaware, they will be able to tell shareholders they have completed a debt restructuring and new union agreements.

“They got in early and they had the money and they didn’t have to get the government involved and that gave them more time,” Standard & Poor’s equity analyst Efraim Levy said.

“Their retail share has stabilized, but they are not out of the woods yet,” he said. “There is still risk for Ford.”

Ford posted a company record net loss of $14.7 billion in 2008 and losses totaled $30 billion over the last three full years. It posted a first-quarter net loss of $1.43 billion.

Still, analysts see the Ford debt restructuring, the union agreements and the automaker’s ability to issue more stock as signs that it could make it through the industry downturn and out the other side without seeking government emergency loans.

The automaker’s stock closed at $4.96 Wednesday on the New York Stock Exchange, down about 40 percent from a year earlier.

Chief Executive Alan Mulally told reporters last week Ford’s restructuring was on track and it had sufficient liquidity to complete its restructuring plan.

The automaker has said that it expects to be breakeven or profitable in 2011 under its restructuring forecast.

One of the agreements between Ford and the United Auto Workers reworked the funding of a trust for union retiree healthcare, a Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association. Ford may now provide half of its obligation in stock instead of cash to preserve liquidity.

The VEBA funding plan requires shareholder approval at the annual meeting. Ford’s deal with the UAW also provided contract changes to cut labor costs.

The annual meeting agenda has several shareholder rights initiatives, including an advisory vote on eliminating a preferred voting structure that has given the Ford family control of the company since it went public in 1956.

Under that structure, Ford family members hold a 40 percent voting interest through 70.9 million Class B shares, while the automaker had more than 2.3 billion common shares outstanding as of March 18, according to its proxy statement.

SIGNS OF PROGRESS

Under Mulally, Ford has slashed thousands of hourly and salaried jobs, cut plants and announced plans to convert three North American truck plants to build fuel-efficient cars.

In January, Ford announced a broad plan to introduce hybrid vehicles, plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles to North America by 2012.

The automaker has sold all of its former premier auto group brands except Volvo and is entertaining offers on Volvo now.

It expects U.S. auto industry sales to start to turn up in the second half of 2009 and has said the plan could withstand U.S. auto industry sales as low as 9.2 million in 2009 without requiring emergency government support

U.S. auto industry sales have been running at a higher clip than that through the first four months of 2009 and analysts believe government stimulus could support sales more.

Ford slashed its automotive debt by about $10 billion, or 38 percent, earlier this year and earlier this week said it had raised $1.4 billion through an offering of 300 million shares at $4.75 each.

The stock issuance will allow it to pay some of its VEBA obligations in cash rather than stock.

Reporting by David Bailey, editing by Leslie Gevirtz

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