The $11 billion question looming over Ford

Ford intends to spend $11 billion to reshape its business. How it plans to spend that money remains a mystery.

Ford intends to spend $11 billion to reshape its business. How it plans to spend that money remains a mystery.

Investors could start to get some answers on Wednesday.

In July, Ford shook investor confidence when it said that it planned to remake its business over the next three to five years. But it didn’t give much in the way of details about what it planned to do.

Ford said it wanted to invest money to “reshape our portfolio of products and markets.” The company will shed some of its businesses and invest in those more important to its future. But executives have otherwise been tight-lipped about their plans — and about where they would get the money needed to make the changes.

CEO Jim Hackett told analysts that Ford had yet to make all the final decisions about a path forward and will continue to have the dialog necessary about those plans with groups such as dealers, unions and regulators.

“It’s not as simple as just pulling the plug or exiting markets,” he said.

Ford’s (F) stock is down 20% since the announcement. A lot rides on the company’s Wednesday earnings report and the investor call that will follow.

“They’re at a point right now where there’s a real demand for clarity about their plans,” said Jeremy Acevedo, Edmunds’ manager of industry analysis.

A restructuring could reduce Ford’s global workforce of 200,000 employees by tens of thousands, according to Adam Jonas, auto analyst with Morgan Stanley.

“We do not see restructuring at Ford as a ‘nice to have’ but as a crucial step,” he wrote in a note downgrading Morgan Stanley’s recommendation on the stock on Friday. “The problem is that management has chosen not to provide a roadmap of how the $11 billion can be spent.”

The auto industry faces an even greater challenge today than it did during the financial crisis of 2008, said Rebecca Lindland, senior analyst for Cox Automotive. Ten years ago, all the automakers were hemorrhaging cash, sales were plunging and GM and Chrysler were heading towards bailout and bankruptcy. Today the immediate financial situation is far better, but they face huge pressure to invest in expensive new technology and a competitive threat from deep pocketed tech companies interested in the market.

“The difficulty that Ford is facing along with other manufacturers is they have to support development of existing products at the same time they need to make huge, high risk investments in autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles and ride hailing, all things consumers aren’t even sure they want yet.” she said.

The good news for Ford’s 100,000 North American workers is the domestic unit is the strongest part of the company. Still, Ford has work to do in that segment as well. Its luxury Lincoln brand has been lagging behind rivals for years, with only about half the US sales of Audi, and roughly a third of the US sales of BMW or Lexus.

Its business in South America, the Middle East and Africa is likely most at risk. Ongoing losses and the relatively small size of the businesses threaten its future.

What’s not as clear is the long-term strategy in Europe, where Ford has struggled for years — but recently reported a series of narrow profits. Ford could follow GM to the exit. In 2013, General Motors closed down its Chevrolet brand in Europe, and sold its Opel and Vauxhall brands to French automaker PSA Group in 2017.

“I certainly wouldn’t take pulling out of Europe off the table,” said Lindland. “GM has shown you can survive and indeed thrive doing that.”

And then there’s the question about how to pay for the changes it says it needs.

One thing that Ford could do is to seek outside investment for its electric and autonomous vehicle efforts as well as any ride sharing. GM has brought in millions in investment by setting up a separate unit known as Cruise to handle that future focused part of the business, and selling stakes to Softbank and Honda.

The question for Wednesday is whether Ford is ready to announce such radical moves.