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Ford aims to cut debt, expand foreign sales

Ford Motor Co (F-T) said it planned to cut its net debt by 15.7 percent to around $14 billion US by the end of June, continuing to pay off the loans that helped make it the one major U.S. automaker to avoid bankruptcy in recent years.
    
Ford management also told investors in a Tuesday meeting that it expects to increase overall global auto sales by 50 percent to about 8 million vehicles a year by the middle of the decade, driven largely by expansion in China and India.
    
"We think it's really important for the investor to know we have a plan and that the plan wasn't just survival," Chief Financial Officer Lewis Booth told reporters prior to the New York investor meeting.
    
The No. 2 U.S. automaker said that about 55 percent of its total vehicle sales should be small cars by 2020. Also, Ford said its Asia-Pacific and Africa sales regions should make up nearly a third of its 2020 sales.
    
Its market share in China and India currently stands between 2 and 3 percent, executives said.
    
Ford aims to lower its debt by $2.6 billion in the second quarter, Booth said.
    
The company provided no update on its 2011 revenue and profit targets. Analysts look for full-year earnings of $1.93 per share, excluding items, up about 1 percent, with revenue rising 13.7 percent to $126.4 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
    
Ford shares were up on Tuesday afternoon. The stock is down 17 percent so far this year, less of a decline than the 22.5 percent drop of larger rival General Motors Co.
    
CATCHING UP IN ASIA
    
Global auto industry sales will rise some 37.1 million from 2010 to 2020, said Ford, using figures from IHS Automotive Insight. Of that growth, nearly 60 percent will come in the so-called BRIC nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China.
    
In China, Ford lags behind GM, Toyota Motor Corp., Volkswagen AG and Hyundai Motor Co and their respective Chinese joint ventures.
    
But the Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford said it will be charging hard in China by doubling its dealer network by 2016, and adding 100 dealers this year.
    
In India, Ford said it will triple its number of dealers to 340 by 2016.
    
Jim Farley, the company's global sales and marketing chief, said Ford's "market coverage" will increase in India to 68 percent by 2015 from the current 15 percent. This means, he said, that Ford will have vehicles that cover 68 percent of consumer purchase choices by price by 2015. In China, Farley said Ford's market coverage by 2015 will rise to 50 percent from 22 percent in 2009.
    
He also said that Ford's vehicle production assembly capacity will rise to 1.1 million by next year
    
DEBT TARGET
    
Shortly after former Boeing Co Alan Mulally took the reins at Ford in the fall of 2006, the automaker borrowed $23.5 billion to support its turnaround, mortgaging nearly all of its assets, including its famous blue oval logo.
    
This move, which came ahead of the housing slump that set the stage for the financial crisis of 2008, allowed Ford to avoid the bankruptcy filings that snagged U.S. rivals GM and Chrysler, which is now managed by Italy's Fiat.
    
The three major credit ratings agencies have steadily raised Ford's rating in the past year. As it stands now, two agencies, Fitch Ratings and Moody's Investors Service, place Ford two notches below investment grade. Standard & Poor's has Ford three notches below investment grade. Morningstar Equity Research late last year gave Ford its lowest investment-grade rating.
    
Company officials have set regaining an investment-grade rating as a high priority.
    
"We're going to keep pursuing it, but it's beyond our control on the timing," Chairman Bill Ford said last week.
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