Ford suspends stock dividend, hoards cash due to coronavirus

Reuters
Autoblog



DETROIT (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co on Thursday moved to hoard cash on its balance sheet, drawing down $15.4 billion from two credit lines and suspending its dividend, in a move to bolster reserves to ride out damage to its business from the coronavirus pandemic.

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The No. 2 U.S. automaker, whose shares were down 2.4% at $4.39 after sinking as much as 8.9% in early trading, also abandoned its 2020 financial forecast and said the cash would be used to deal with a squeeze on capital caused by shutdowns in production due to the fast-spreading virus.

The move will give Ford more than $37 billion in cash, almost matching the revenue it reported in the fourth quarter.

Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas said in a research note that corporate liquidity during the outbreak was “top of mind” and that U.S. automakers had strong balance sheets.

The coronavirus outbreak, which started in China, has been called a pandemic by the World Health Organization with about 219,000 infections and more than 8,900 deaths globally.

Comparing the current economic situation to the 2008-2009 financial crisis, Chief Executive Jim Hackett said Ford was putting in place safeguards to protect its business.

“We’re at war with the virus and Ford is going to win,” Hackett told employees on a video conference.

Ford has come under fire from some analysts on Wall Street for moving too slowly to cut costs and restructure its business.

At the end of last year, it had booked only $3.7 billion of the projected $11 billion in charges it previously said it would take in its global restructuring.

Since then, the outbreak has spread globally, leading Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler, on Wednesday to announce the shutdown of their North American plants to prevent the spread of the disease among their factory workers.

Electric carmaker Tesla agreed to cut the number of workers at its California car plant by 75% and remains in talks about other measures to comply with a regional lockdown.

All three Detroit automakers have seen U.S. employees test positive for COVID-19, the contagious respiratory illness caused by the virus.

OUTLOOK REVISIONS

The outbreak has already hit other automakers and more are expected to slash their 2020 forecasts.

Evercore ISI analysts said in a research note that such actions “will be an ongoing theme in addition to the removal of (stock) buybacks.”

On Wednesday, German luxury automaker BMW AG cut its 2020 profit outlook, saying it would be “significantly lower” than last year. Two days before that, Chinese automaker Great Wall Motor Co Ltd also cut its 2020 sales and profit targets.

GM and FCA did not change their profit forecasts on Thursday.

“We are dedicated to managing our cost structure against this dynamic environment,” GM said in a statement. “We continue to monitor the situation closely and will make any necessary decisions to stay resilient.”

GM had $34.6 billion in liquidity at the end of 2019, including $17.3 billion in cash.

“We are evaluating the impact of all steps being taken inside the company related to the coronavirus emergency on our current financial guidance,” FCA said in a statement, adding it would provide an update when it has “sufficient visibility on market conditions.”

FCA had 23.1 billion euros ($24.94 billion) in liquidity at the end of 2019.

Shares in Uber Technologies Inc surged as much as 35% on Thursday after Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi said the ride-hailing company had plenty of cash on hand.

“In any crisis, liquidity is key,” he said on an investor call.

Ford said Thursday it notified lenders it would borrow the unused amounts of the two credit lines, totaling $15.4 billion. The Dearborn, Michigan-based company had $22 billion in cash at the end of last year.

The dividend suspension will save Ford money at an annual rate of $2.4 billion.

The company said it was prioritizing financial flexibility and investments in future technologies such as self-driving cars and a series of important 2020 vehicle launches including a redesigned version of its top-selling F-150 full-size pickup truck.

Ford also withdrew its 2020 profit outlook. In February, before the coronavirus hit the United States, it offered a weaker-than-expected forecast for earnings in the range of 94 cents to $1.20 a share.

Ford said it would update its outlook when it reports first-quarter results on April 28.

Also on Thursday, Ford said it would offer new-car buyers up to six months of payment relief. Some U.S. dealers have begun to see sales drop off because of the virus, which has already drastically hurt demand in other countries.



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