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Earnings Preview: Ford 1Q earnings seen higher

Dee-Ann Durbin, AP Auto Writer

DETROIT (AP) -- Investors already know the bad news at Ford Motor Co. The company expects to lose $2 billion in Europe this year because of sliding sales and restructuring costs. And it recently warned that it will lose $300 million in South America in the first quarter because of currency devaluation in Venezuela.

Ford will also have some good news to share when it reports first-quarter earnings Wednesday. Sales are accelerating in the U.S. and China, and it's making more money per vehicle. And while Europe is still hurting, Ford recently said it expects to break even there by 2015.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Analysts polled by FactSet expect Ford's first-quarter revenue to climb by more than $1 billion, and they think per-share earnings will be up by 3 cents from a year ago. Much of that improvement will come from the U.S., where new vehicles and demand for pickup trucks helped Ford achieve the biggest market share increases of any car manufacturer in the first quarter. Ford's share jumped to 16.2 percent from 15.5 percent in the first quarter of 2012.

U.S. pickup truck sales are booming as the housing market improves and construction increases. That directly benefits Ford, since its F-Series pickups are the country's best-selling vehicles. F-Series sales rose 17 percent in the first quarter, or nearly three times the average sales increase for the industry, according to Autodata Corp.

Ford is also getting a boost from the redesigned Fusion midsize sedan and Escape SUV. Both vehicles went on sale last year but had a slow start because of several safety recalls. Ford fixed those issues and now they're on a tear, with U.S. sales of both vehicles up 25 percent in the first quarter.

U.S. buyers paid an average $32,784 for a Ford in the first quarter, or around $1,000 more than the same period a year ago, according to Internet buying site TrueCar.com. And Ford didn't spend more on incentives, despite concerns that a weakening Japanese yen would spark a price war in the U.S. market.

Ford sales rose 54 percent in China during the quarter — more than three times the industry average — thanks to the new Kuga and EcoSport small SUVs as well as continuing demand for the Ford Focus sedan.

Those high marks will help the company weather continuing losses in Europe, where Ford's car sales fell 20 percent in the first three months of this year, according to the European Auto Manufacturers' Association. That was slightly more than double the industry's 9.8 percent decline.

WHY IT MATTERS: Ford, which employs 166,000 people worldwide, has made remarkable progress since it nearly went bankrupt in 2006. But Wall Street has long cast a skeptical eye on the cyclical auto industry, and Ford is still trying to prove that its turnaround will stick and it won't return to the bad habits of the past, like overproduction and steep discounting.

Ford has scored some recent victories, including returning to investment-grade status last year and resuming payment of a dividend of 10 cents per share. But its net income has fallen in seven of the last eight quarters as it invests heavily to grow sales in Asia and arrest sales declines in Europe.

Analysts have set a $15 target price on Ford shares, a level the company last reached two years ago. Jefferies auto analyst Peter Nesvold, who has a higher target price of $16, said North American results are likely to be higher than expected in the first quarter. Europe is a concern, he says, but Ford's team successfully turned around North America's operations so there's no reason to think they can't do the same in Europe.

"We're still of the view that this is the right team. They're done it before," Nesvold said.

WHAT'S EXPECTED: Analysts polled by FactSet forecast earnings of 38 cents per share on revenue of $33.6 billion.

LAST YEAR'S QUARTER: Ford earned $1.4 billion, or 35 cents per share, on revenue of $32.4 billion.