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Dearnborn — Ford Motor Co. hopes new offerings like the F-150 and Explorer will drive it to greater profits this year after a 2014 financial pit stop of lower sales volumes and overseas economic woes.

The Dearborn automaker earned $3.2 billion in 2014, down from $7.2 billion the year before, and pre-tax profits fell $2.3 billion to $6.3 billion.

Ford's fourth-quarter financial results were particularly weak: Its fourth-quarter net income plummeted 98 percent and pre-tax profit fell 14 percent from last year, but it still beat analysts' estimates.

Executives had cautioned all year that numbers would fall as Ford incurred higher introduction costs and stopped production of its best-selling vehicle — the F-150 — for a month as it switched over to a new model. The company expects some troubles — namely, currency issues in South America and economic turmoil in Russia — will continue to tug at its bottom line. Ford hopes last year's record 24 product introductions will pay dividends this year as production of most of those vehicles reaches full-strength.

"2015 is going to be a breakthrough year for Ford," President and CEO Mark Fields told reporters and analysts on a conference call Thursday.

Ford predicts better outlooks this year for nearly every region it operates in, although it worsened its forecast for Europe, saying it expects to lose more than the $250 million it earlier predicted there. Ford predicts a pre-tax profit of $8.5 billion-$9.5 billion in 2015.

"Ford has been able to contain costs in North America, product momentum accelerates globally, the European restructuring is on track and China continues to grow," Sterne Agee analyst Michael Ward said in an investor note. "We expect Ford to generate surplus cash in 2015, and in 2016 and we expect cash allocation to increasingly favor shareholders."

Ford's fourth-quarter results were driven by a $1.5 billion pre-tax profit in North America, down $252 million compared to a year ago. Ford made $6.9 billion in North America in all of 2014, down from $8.8 billion because of lower sales volume and recall costs. Ford lost 1.1 percentage points of market share in North America to end the fourth quarter at 14.3 percent, largely because of the production cuts for the changeover to its new 2015 pickup.

Ford lost about $581 million in manufacturing and engineering costs last year, mostly due to launch costs, Bob Shanks, Ford's chief financial officer, said. The F-150 was the most notable example with 13 weeks of downtime between two plants, but Ford also incurred added costs from launches of the Transit, Expedition, Mustang and other new vehicles.

Sales of the new aluminum-bodied F-150 are picking up. Ford has already sold about 5,000, and Fields said January sales results for F-Series trucks could be the best since 2004. A third shift has been added to Ford's Dearborn Truck Plant, and new equipment has been installed at its Kansas City plant, Fields said. Ford hopes to be at full production by the middle of the year.

"Ford likely is happy to close the books on 2014 and look ahead to 2015," Michelle Krebs, senior analyst with AutoTrader.com said. "Ford's U.S. sales show the continuing shift towards pickup trucks, when Ford is transitioning its F-150 to the new aluminum-bodied version, and sport utilities, like the Explorer and Escape, at the expense of cars like the Focus and Fusion."

Ford also made money last year in Asia Pacific, posting a record pre-tax profit of $589 million, thanks in part to strong sales in China.

It was a different story in Europe and South America, where the automaker lost more than a billion dollars in each region.

In South America, Ford lost $187 million in the fourth quarter, and finished the year with a $1.16 billion loss there. Venezuela remains a trouble spot, as Ford took a one-time hit of $800 million because of currency issues.

"We don't see anything changing going forward," Shanks. "As you look ahead, it seems like conditions are worsening. It's extremely difficult for us to get the cash to run the business."

Fields said the company was committed to continuing to sell vehicles there. "We know the business environment remains volatile ... but in the longer term, it's an attractive and important place to do business," Fields said.

The automaker lost $1.06 billion in Europe in 2014, including $443 million in the fourth quarter. Ford now says its European profit for 2015 will be better than this year but worse than a $250 million loss it previously forecast. The decline in guidance comes as problems in Russia continue and Fields said that country would "be a drag on our earnings" for the foreseeable future.

Ford lost $20 million in the Middle East and Africa last year, including $82 million in the fourth quarter, a $22 million improvement from a year ago.

mmartinez@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2401

Twitter.com/MikeMartinez_DN

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