Analyst: F-Series one reason to bet on Ford

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co.’s F-150 franchise might be worth more than the entire company, according to Morgan Stanley equity analyst Adam Jonas. That’s one reason the Wall Street analyst on Wednesday raised his price target for the company from $10 to $15.

It’s the first time in two years Jonas and Morgan Stanley analysts have raised their forecast for the Dearborn automaker. And it marks the biggest increase for Morgan Stanley’s Ford earnings forecast in almost five years.

Jonas wrote: “The company has made significant changes to senior management but investors lack confidence in Ford’s ability to address chronically loss-making businesses and its potential to pivot into areas of growth (like) shared (and) autonomous.”

But certain moves like potentially restructuring segments of the company and redeploying funds could “halt years of underperformance,” he wrote. Ford has said it will move money around to shift the company’s focus away from car production and make more SUVs.

Ford plans to trim $14 billion from materials costs and engineering alone, the automaker has said.

“We certainly agree that with over 40 years of truck leadership, Ford F-Series is an outstanding franchise,” Ford spokesman Brad Carroll said in a statement. “Ford has a solid balance sheet, with over $35 billion of liquidity, which provides financial flexibility. In addition, we continue our intense focus on improving the operational fitness of the business to deliver stronger results while building toward our vision of the future. We’re confident that as these fitness actions take hold, the market will recognize our progress.”

The new outlook came a day before Ford executives outline product plans to show how the company will compete over the next 24 months. Jonas and other investors have criticized Ford in recent months for a lack of clarity.

But Ford executives in recent months have teased a “big” product year in 2019. Thursday’s event will outline plans to grow its share of the pickup and SUV markets, according to a source familiar with the situation, as well as its push into electrification and new technology.

Jonas said in a Wednesday morning note that Ford is undervalued, given the value of the F-150 franchise relative to the rest of the company. That’s because F-Series trucks sell well in the U.S., where lower oil prices are boosting pickup demand.

Jonas wrote that he doesn’t see Ford stock falling further than it had through the first months of 2018. The stock closed at $10.78 Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday, the stock ended regular trading with a 2.2 percent gain to $11.02, closing above $11 per share for the first time since the beginning of February. The gain came on a day when the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 1 percent.

“We see Ford as an out-of-favor self-help story with room to surprise the market with cost-savings and profit-repositioning potential,” Jonas wrote. “At its current depressed valuation level, the value of its commercial franchise (F-Series) represents a larger percentage of its firm value than any other OEM under our global coverage.

“Ford isn’t out of the woods yet, but we think that the bar is pretty low here.”

For Ford, the change of tone from Jonas — who lambasted Ford CEO Jim Hackett for not giving Wall Street the details it wants during a January conference call — shows an upside and potential within the company that executives have stressed over the last year.

Jonas wrote that the automaker could drive up the stock price by reducing nameplates or exiting unprofitable global markets. He said the automaker could also be more transparent around spending in the mobility sector.

He’s speculating potential moves there. For now, the F-Series, potential in what he called “Autos 2.0” for Ford to generate new revenue streams from autonomous and electrified vehicles, previously announced plans to restructure the company to be more capable of thriving in a changing auto industry, and the already low buy-in price give the company an upside, according to Jonas.

Ford will outline its product plans Thursday at its Product Development Center showroom in Dearborn. It’s the first of two occasions Ford leadership is using to provide clear evidence that the company has a credible plan to drive near-term profits to fund investments in electrified and autonomous vehicles.

The second event will be anchored to Ford’s first-quarter earnings next month, and will deal more directly with Ford’s global business plan.

Ford stock has been down since January when it forecast lower 2018 profits before reporting what executives deemed disappointing 2017 profits. Even with Wednesday’s bump in the stock price, Ford shares were down roughly 12 percent since the start of the year, and roughly flat since CEO Jim Hackett was appointed May 22.

Jonas and Morgan Stanley ranked Ford stock as its top pick among U.S. automakers, and No. 3 in the overall automotive sector. Ford previously was No. 16 in the sector.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau