The Terrible Auto Market
With the success of the GM IPO, we may be tempted to forget the terrible decade the U.S. auto industry has just completed. Car sales steadily declined from 2000 through 2007, then collapsed in 2008 and 2009 to a level not seen since 1951. Truck sales, which saw dramatic growth in the 1990s and finally eclipsed car sales in 1999, saw some growth in the early 2000s, but also dramatically retreated in the 2007-09 recession.
The “big 3” U.S. auto makers also suffered market share declines in this period, from a combined 65% of the U.S. market in 2000, to 53% in 2006, to 44% in 2009. It should be no surprise that GM and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy in 2009. The real question is: Why didn’t Ford go bankrupt?
Why Didn’t Ford Go Bankrupt?
By 2006, it was clear to the big 3 auto makers that there was a problem. Ford’s sales and net income had been flat for many years. Ford, like the other auto makers, began a major restructuring to reduce capacity, cut costs, and accelerate product development. The key to Ford’s success, however, was in aligning its business and financial strategies.
How did the Ford finance team respond to declining sales and the company’s new operational restructuring? By borrowing over $12 billion, increasing the company’s auto sector debt (excluding the financial services business) by 66% from $17.9 billion to $30.0 billion. Ford borrowed this money at the peak of the credit bubble, right before the recession hit and vehicle sales dropped by over 1/3. Why isn’t Ford bankrupt?
Why the New Debt?
Ford’s financial strategy was to maintain adequate liquidity to complete the operational restructuring, consistent with the auto industry’s high degree of cyclicality. So why borrow over $12 billion? The bulk of the new debt, almost $9 billion, went to increase the company’s cash hoard, with the remainder funding losses, capital expenditures, and other operating needs. During 2006, the company’s auto sector cash and marketable securities increased from $25 billion to almost $34 billion. Add to that over $12 billion available under the company’s revolving credit facilities (which were also renewed in 2006), and the company’s total liquidity going into the recession was over $46 billion.
Debt Maturities Matter Too
In addition to building cash and revolver availability, Ford had a conservative strategy on debt maturities. At December 31, 2006, 95% of Ford’s auto sector debt was long term (i.e. maturing beyond 1 year). In fact, over 88% matured beyond 5 years. While long-term debt typically costs the issuer more than short-term debt, Ford accepted this additional cost in order to reduce the risk that it would have to come to the financial markets to rollover debt during a downturn.
Ford, GM and Chrysler all faced significant operational challenges in the mid-2000s. All began major operational restructurings to cut capacity and costs and simplify their manufacturing and distribution networks; we are seeing signs of the operational turnaround at all three companies.
Ford was able to avoid bankruptcy in 2009 because of its operational restructuring, but also because of a successful financial strategy. It opportunistically borrowed money under favorable terms, built a large cash position, and kept very long maturities on the bulk of its debt. This financial strategy gave the operating side of the business the breathing room to complete its restructuring and survive the recession.