Being early is indistinguishable from being wrong: Ford Motor Company

There have been a number of companies I’ve owned multiple times in my investing practice, among them Amazon, Home Depot, Apple, Walmart, and Ford.

While all but the latter have delivered satisfactory gains, Ford seems to be the one that I always seem to get wrong. But was I wrong or was I just early?

I was wrong.

My first position in Ford was in the early 2000’s and I barely have a memory of it because I didn’t start tracking and journaling about my investments until 2006. So, let’s call that initial position a mulligan.

The second time I owned it, the company was emerging from the Great Financial Crisis (2007-2009). CEO Alan Mulally took the helm in 2006 and in a stunning act of clairvoyance, mortgaged Ford’s assets to secure billions in loans in order to strengthen the company’s balance sheet and provide capital for a makeover of the company.

It’s better to be lucky than good.

The Great Financial Crisis, which included Torquemada-like scrutiny of loan servicing operations (like those of car companies that both build the car and provide the financing for consumers to buy said car), resulted in the bankruptcy of two of the three major auto companies. Of the “Detroit Three,” Ford was the only one that did not require government assistance.

In other words, I really liked the leadership of the company. So in 2010 I took a stake in Ford yet again at around $12. I held it for two years, watched it drop to $9, rebound to $12, where, fatigued, I sold it for a modest loss.

This is where I should say something to the effect of “but if I held it for a long term, patience would have paid off.” But it wouldn’t have. At this moment, Ford trades at around $15, so a long-term position in Ford would have netted around two and a quarter percent year-over-year gain…hardly a windfall.

And yet, as the title of this post suggests, I believe that Ford is worth looking at. They were not early to the electric car market, but they’re taking it seriously, and I believe they could hold a #2 market position within a few years.

Mulally was a brilliant executive because he excelled at building brand equity, communicating authenticity, and he was a very good capital allocator. The not-worth-mentioning leaders of the company that followed wanted Ford to be a ubiquitous car manufacturer or a historic car manufacturer or a cutting-edge car manufacturer. But they were not concerned with Ford being a profitable car manufacturer. The current CEO Jim Farley loves cars and he loves profitability. He’s closing down unprofitable lines and positioning EVs where they will get the most traction: The Ford F-150 (a marriage of torque and utility) and the Mustang (a marriage of torque and tech).

Ford is not early to the push to EV fleets. Its stock price reflects this sentiment. Its PE Ratio of 15 is low relative to its 5-year average of 17.7. Enterprise Value to EBITDA (a decent proxy for valuation based on cash flows) is 8.2. I like to see EV/EBITDA for most companies between 10-15, but auto companies usually trade at a discount to the market in PE and EV/EBITDA (Ford’s historical average is 8.6), but this includes significant drag from unprofitable production lines that have already been mothballed.

Bottom line: For the third time in my life, I have opened a position in Ford, and will be looking to add to that position over time. Ford looks wrong…again. But with good leaders in charge, they might just be early.

Fear filled with reasons

What follows is an apocryphal sound bite from financial media inspired by the events of a day in mid-July 2021. This quote could very well take place on any given day, a few dozen times per year, with dates, parties, and events interchangeable:

A seven-day positive streak in the markets was broken with the news that Google is being sued for anti-competitive practices related to the operation of their app store. As this news broke, we’ve learned that the Japanese government decided to ban spectators from the upcoming Olympic Games because of the worrying surge in COVID cases. Additionally, labor numbers, employment numbers, news of a hurricane approaching the Atlantic coast, and a half dozen other things that are freaking us all out has led to a several-hundred point drop in the Dow Jones index.

Like I said, replace Google with Apple, replace Tokyo and Olympic with Europe and tourists, and you’ve got a whole new news day filled with reasons to be fearful. Reasons to be negative.

But are these reasons filled with fear or fear filled with reasons?

Often and especially after sequential days of positive movement in the indices, the market turns negative and starts to look for reasons to justify that negativity. The usually turn to macroeconomic indicators or force majeure headlines like extreme weather or, in the case of 2021, COVID numbers. If we see beyond this “fear filled with reasons” tendency, the mindful investor can capture the opportunity to open or add to a position otherwise avoided due to high valuations.

In order to identify these moments of market inefficiency, it’s helpful to identify what it is that you DO fear.

Here’s what I fear:

  • Long-term economic decline
  • Permanent decline in birth rate
  • Lack of faith in business and industry
  • Hyperinflation
  • Threats to democracy and the rule of law
  • Large-scale war that includes nuclear and/or biological weapons
  • Irrevocable ecological destruction brought about by climate change

Of these items, the only ones I’m legitimately concerned about are war and climate change. War could very well happen tomorrow and there’s nothing I can do about it. And if my orbit does become impacted by weapons of mass destruction, I’ve got bigger problems than my portfolio balance. Climate change probably won’t permanently impair our way of life until well after I’m dead. So, from an investing perspective, I don’t have any reasons to be fearful.

The media and the market will give you as many reasons to be fearful as you have time to dream up. Incorporate them into your investing strategy at your own peril.

In two ways, these actors are doing you a favor.

First, they are forcing you to envision the near future as something other than what it is—relatively safe and relatively predictable. The day journalists get on the news and say “Everything’s swell” is the day I will head for my basement closet.

Secondly, every time someone, whether a media personality, a politician or a fund manager gets on TV and enumerates the things you should be scared of, they present a buying opportunity for those of us fortunate enough to know what we know.

The world is relatively safe, relatively predictable, and over 80% of Google’s revenue still comes from advertising. Buy $GOOG.