GM, Ford turnarounds hinge on economy: S&P

GM, Ford turnarounds hinge on economy: S&P
LONDON (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co. <F.N> and General Motors <GM.N> have
had some success in efforts to return their North American operations to profitability but still face significant headwinds, Standard and Poor's analysts said.
The strength of the U.S. economy remains the key wildcard to the automakers' turnaround plans, S&P analysts Robert Schulz and Gregg Lemos Stein said in a presentation on Friday in London.
"Current liquidity at both GM and Ford are fairly strong and management are focused on restructuring," said Schulz.
But he said there was a risk of default in the event of a U.S. recession which would make cost cut targets and revenue goals hard to achieve.
S&P is forecasting U.S. light vehicle sales at 16.3 million this year, down slightly from 16.5 million in 2006.
But a sharper decline cannot be ruled out, with a possible 10 percent decline in sales likely to have "severe complications for Ford and GM's turnaround efforts," Schulz said.
For now that is not S&P's main scenario and analysts there say the U.S. economy remains in reasonable shape. Near term risks, however, include the willingness of United Auto Workers to agree to contractual changes later this year.
S&P said neither side is likely to take a very hard line, with only a small chance of a prolonged strike by workers which, if it did happen, could cripple turnaround plans.
Ford and GM fell to "junk" status in 2005, and are currently rated B, five notches below investment grade.
They face other problems including overcapacity and dwindling market share in the U.S. light vehicle market as their commitment to cut production comes at a time when Japanese rivals are ramping up theirs, S&P said.
Triple-A-rated Toyota Motor Corp. <7203.T> is set this year to end GM's 76-year reign as the world's biggest automaker after the U.S. group last week forecast global sales of 9.2 million vehicles against Toyota's plan to move 9.34 million.
GM, which lost more than $10 billion in 2005 and about $2 billion in 2006, is in the middle of a restructuring that also includes slashing more than 34,000 jobs and closing 12 plants. Earnings this year have so far proved disappointing however.
GM reported a 90 percent plunge in first-quarter earnings earlier this month, missing Wall Street estimates by a wide margin, as mortgage-related losses at its GMAC affiliate swamped gains in its main business.
Ford, which made a record $12.6 billion loss last year, is lagging its U.S. rival in terms of restructuring. But it has made sharp U.S. production cuts and negotiated concessions on healthcare costs, S&P analysts say.
Indeed five-year credit default swaps on both companies have been very volatile.
CDS on GM jumped to near 1,400 basis points in early 2006 but fell to under 400 basis points earlier this year. CDS on Ford, meanwhile, has ranged between 400 and 1,000 basis points over the past year or so, according to JP Morgan data.
That, S&P says, reflects the uncertainty about how the companies will perform.
S&P also said the current B ratings posed challenges for the companies in the longer term, with a need for both to find ways to improve their ratings and cut the costs of funding.

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