Ford has generated big profits for so long that investors were bound to get spoiled.
The company reported its tenth straight quarterly profit Wednesday but its stock price fell 6 percent, in large part because the carmaker decided to hold off on reinstating a dividend to stockholders. Investors were also irked by slowing growth and rising costs in the company's third quarter.
Even though Ford earned $1.6 billion and beat expectations, investors wanted to see more the huge gains from 2010, said David Silver, an analyst with Wall Street Strategies. Ford's profit jumped 70 percent in the third quarter last year, as sales rose sharply from historic lows in 2009 and buyers snapped up new models such as the Fiesta.
"The expectations are extremely high," Silver said.
Investors also were disappointed that Ford didn't reinstate its dividend, which it stopped paying in September 2006 when it was deeply in debt. Since then the carmaker has undergone a massive restructuring that has helped it turn a profit every quarter for two and half years. In that period, it has scored big with car buyers. Besides the small Fiesta, Ford has launched popular models such as the Fusion sedan and Explorer SUV.
But distributing its earnings to investors _ in a dividend _ hasn't happened yet.
Ford is still focused on improving its finances and isn't ready to pay a dividend despite having $8 billion in cash, Chief Financial Officer Lewis Booth said Wednesday. He also cautioned that Ford will start small when it does start paying a dividend again. Ford paid 40 cents per share to investors in 2005, the last full year it paid a dividend.
Jon Burnham, who continues to hold Ford shares in the Burnham Fund he manages, said he suspects some investors bought the stock hoping for a dividend and are dumping it now. Burnham said he trusts Ford's management and considers the stock an investment that will pay off in two or three years.
"I think they're right not to pay the dividend if they're not comfortable they can maintain it," Burnham said.
In the third quarter, Ford's earnings amounted to 41 cents per share. That compared with 43 cents per share in the same quarter a year earlier.
Standard & Poor's said Ford would have performed much better it not for turbulence in commodity prices. It reiterated its "buy" rating on Ford's shares Wednesday and said it believes the company will improve profits and reinstate its dividend in 2012.
Ford's third-quarter profit was lowered by a $350 million non-cash charge due to falling prices of hedged commodities like copper and aluminum. Copper fell 25 percent in September alone, Ford said. The company could book gains if commodity prices rise in the future.
Ford warned that commodity charges will likely lower its automotive operating margin to 5.7 percent in 2011, from 6.1 percent a year ago. That was another concern for investors, who want assurance that Ford can continue the 8-percent margins it has seen in North America for the last two years, according to Jefferies analyst Peter Nesvold.
Without one-time items, including payments to dealers and suppliers related to last year's closure of the Mercury brand, Ford earned 46 cents per share. That beat Wall Street's expectations. Analysts polled by FactSet forecast earnings of 45 cents per share.
The country's second largest automaker said revenue rose 14 percent to $33.1 billion.
Booth said Ford will consider paying the dividend before it returns to investment-grade status, a reversal from its previous plan to wait. Standard & Poor's and Fitch ratings agencies upgraded Ford's credit ratings to one notch below investment grade last week after workers approved a new four-year contract that limits Ford's labor costs. Ford lost its investment-grade status in 2005.
Ford's debt now stands at $12.7 billion. The company repaid $1.3 billion during the third quarter. It has said it wants to reduce its total debt to $10 billion by mid-decade.
Edmunds.com said Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford is doing a lot of things right. The company is managing its inventory and spending less on incentives, which allows it to make more money from every vehicle sold. U.S. buyers paid an average of $32,391 for a Ford vehicle in the third quarter, up 5 percent from last year.
The company was hurt by the debt crisis in Europe and by rising costs in Asia, where it has begun a four-year expansion plan. But it's still making money in North America, where it reported a pretax profit of $1.6 billion.
Ford's earnings were overshadowed somewhat by Consumer Reports' announcement Tuesday that the Ford brand fell 10 spots in its latest reliability rankings. Consumer Reports said its subscribers complained about glitchy touch screens and transmissions on some of Ford's new vehicles, including the Explorer and Ford Focus. Ford now ranks 20th out of 28 major brands.
Mulally said the ratings reflect trouble with new products that Ford identified a year ago and has been fixing with software updates. He predicted Ford will move back up in the ratings.
But Joe Phillippi, president of AutoTrends Consulting in Short Hills, N.J., said Consumer Reports' criticism could impact sales and earnings.
"That could be something that turns people off from putting them on their consideration list," he said.