- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2008

Ford Motor Co., which dropped its goal of becoming profitable by 2009 and said it will cut production of trucks and sport utility vehicles through the rest of this year. It was a warning shot to the rest of the beleaguered U.S. auto industry, which is facing its worst sales in more than a decade.

Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford didn’t rule out layoffs or plant closures as it retrenches in a slumping industry, saying it would release more detail about its cost-cutting efforts in July. Ford cut its forecast for U.S. light vehicle sales this year to between 14.7 million and 15.1 million, down from 17 million as recently as 2005. If sales drop as low as 14.7 million, it would be the slowest year for U.S. vehicle sales since 1993, according to Ward’s AutoInfoBank.

Ford said it will cut North American production by 15 percent in the second quarter, 15 percent to 20 percent in the third quarter and 2 percent to 8 percent in the fourth quarter. The cuts will primarily affect pickups and SUVs, which have seen sales plummet in recent months because of rising gas prices, the weak economy and the slowdown in new home construction.

Production cuts hurt automakers’ revenues because the companies book vehicles as sold when they leave the factory.

“We all would like the basic business environment to not have deteriorated, but clearly the most important thing we can do for the long-term success of the Ford Motor Company is deal with this reality,” Ford President and Chief Executive Alan Mulally said in a conference call yesterday.

Mr. Mulally said the company expects a longer and slower recovery than it did several weeks ago and won’t immediately set a new profitability target. Ford predicts that gas prices will be in the $3.75 to $4.25 range for the remainder of the year.

It was a stunning turnaround from last month, when Ford posted a surprise first-quarter profit of $100 million and billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian announced plans to buy up to 20 million shares of Ford stock because of his confidence in the company’s direction. Ford said yesterday that its board voted to remain neutral on Mr. Kerkorian’s offer.

Ford shares dropped 64 cents, or 8.2 percent, to $7.16.

General Motors Corp. cut its forecast for U.S. sales last month and has said it would cut second-quarter production in North America by 5 percent. But GM is under less pressure to make further cuts because of a nearly three-month strike at supplier American Axle and Manufacturing Holdings Inc., which affected more than 30 GM plants and cost the automaker more than 100,000 vehicles, mostly trucks and SUVs. GM spokesman Chris Lee wouldn’t say whether GM plans additional cuts.

Chrysler LLC quietly cut North American production by 16 percent in the first four months of this year, but won’t say how much more it might cut, spokesman Ed Saenz said. Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. said they also have cut North American production to meet lower demand.