Following the rest of the market, automobile stocks have been turning the corner lately, especially General Motors (GM), which has outperformed the group - the company reported Q4 earnings this morning that missed EPS, due to ongoing European woes, but beat on revenues. What does GM's report mean for investors? Should they jump aboard for the ride?
I wouldn't, as GM's woes extend beyond Europe to quality issues. In a recent survey, General Motors' cars were nowhere to be found in the top ranks, which went to Toyota's (TM) Lexus, Volkswagen's (VLKAY.PK) Porsche and Ford's (F) Lincoln. Besides. GM has the lowest operating margins in the industry-50 percent below that of TM. That's why Toyota, which raised its sales forecast after reporting solid Q4 results, is my top choice.
Qtrly Revenue Growth
Qtrly Earnings growth
Toyota enjoys a number of strengths and opportunities: A large scale that allows it to command the highest margins in the automobile industry; economies of scope that allows the company to cater to different market segments, including the luxury Lexus line. Toyota further enjoys a strong brand name and a big presence in emerging markets, including China, where there is plenty of room for further growth.
At the same time, Toyota faces a number of weakness and threats: Its competitive advantage is sensitive to currency fluctuations, especially the yen-dollar rate, and its sales are sensitive to world economic growth. Toyota is further vulnerable to competition from domestic and overseas automakers, while its China growth is vulnerable to the China-Japan territorial conflict.
I would also buy Ford for five reasons: First, the doubling of its quarterly dividend, from 5 to 10 cents per share, an appealing proposition for today's low interest rate environment.
Second, Ford is seeing an improvement in economic fundamentals. With improving quality and the introduction of new models, Ford has been benefiting from a broader recognition of its brand - Ford's 2013 Fusion was named Car of the Year by AOL Autos. The company has further expanded its overseas presence, especially in China, where it is the largest foreign company. It is also expected to benefit from the backlash of the territorial disputes between Japan and China.
Third, the company is seeing improving financial fundamentals, especially in its profit margins. Ford was the only American automobile company that didn't receive government money during the 2008 crisis. Last year, both S&P and Fitch raised Ford's credit rating.
Ford Motor Company
Quarterly Revenue Growth
Quarterly earnings growth
Operating cash flow
*Fye Dec 30, 2013; Source: Yahoo.Finance.com
Fourth, Ford has been very aggressive in addressing its European market woes by idling factories, cutting thousands of jobs, and taking a $3 billion charge over the next two years.
Fifth, the introduction of new more-fuel efficient products that cater to different segments of the global economy, including the all-mew Ford Fusion and Mondeo, Escape and Kuga, EcoSport in South Africa, and B-Max in Europe.
A few words of caution: Automobile stocks are highly cyclical. This means they are exposed to fluctuations in the global economy. That's why I would constantly keep an eye to the frangible global recovery, especially in Europe where even France and Germany seem to head for a contraction rather than an expansion
Disclosure: I am long F.