Can Ford steal America back from Toyota?

Toyota's recall of more than 8 million vehicles could be just what Ford needs to surpass the Japanese carmaker in the US market.

By InvestorPlace Jan 28, 2010 2:08PM

InvestorPlaceBy Paul Ausick


Ford (F) could be well on its way to gaining the lead in U.S. market share in 2010. In December, the U.S. giant's share totaled 17.2%, slightly behind Toyota's (TM) 18% share.


It's a pretty safe bet that Toyota's suspension of production on eight of its models and its recall of more than 8 million vehicles in the U.S. and Europe will have an impact on its market share. The central question, though, is how many U.S. buyers are out there just waiting to get behind the wheel of a new car?


Ford thinks that it's well-positioned to improve market share in 2010. And although it didn't refer to Toyota's troubles, Ford is probably not shedding many tears over what the public will certainly see as a calamitous drop in quality at the Japanese carmaker.


For years, Toyota has led or been near the top in customer quality ratings, and the company has been able to cash in on that. Toyota's threat to displace General Motors (MTLQQ) as the leading carmaker in the U.S. is effectively over.


One way Toyota could spin this problem would be to copy the response of Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) to the Tylenol poisoning murders of 1982. Tylenol owned 37% of the market before the incident, and that number fell to 7% within weeks. J&J immediately recalled every bottle of Tylenol on retailers' shelves without government prompting. The company's handling of the grisly incident became a case study in how a large company could assume responsibility for consumer safety, even though in this case the poisoned pills were not a result of anything J&J had done.


Once Toyota fixes all its accelerator problems, it will very likely have to buy back customers with lower prices, rebates and other incentives. That's what Johnson & Johnson did. It worked back then, and it could very likely work again now. This is a slow, expensive process, and it could take Toyota years and billions of dollars to get back to its leading position in the U.S.


And that's only if the market for cars starts to recover on its own. U.S. sales have been helped by federal programs that have now ended. Is there still some pent-up demand for new, more fuel-efficient cars in the U.S.? And if that demand is there, will people be able to get financing to buy new cars? And what kind of incentives will people need to part with their money?


Ford plans to introduce its Fiesta model in the U.S. later this year, and its Fusion model has been a strong seller. Honda's (HMC) Accord is likely to replace the Toyota Camry as the best-selling car in the U.S., and the Ford Fusion is also going to impact Camry sales once they start up again.


Ford's outlook for 2010 calls for continued positive cash flow and profitability. The troubles at Toyota will only help Ford and other carmakers in the U.S. market. (Read "5 Reasons to Buy Ford Stock Now" for more on why investors should get in on Ford before the surge.)


At the time of this writing, the author did not own shares of Ford, Toyota, Johnson & Johnson or Honda in personal or client portfolios.


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