Ford F-150

Ford Credit, the finance unit of Ford Motor Co., is generating about half of the automaker’s profit by making loans to dealers and consumers. Facing the downturn, Ford plans to roll out a redesigned F-150 and a new series of SUVs.

Aside from F-Series pickups hauling in gobs of profit, Ford Motor Co.’s automotive business isn’t carrying much weight lately.

Thank goodness for the finance guys.

Ford Credit, the lending arm that’s become accustomed to propping up the company in good times and bad, now generates about half the automaker’s profit, up from 15% to 20% in the past.

Ford Credit is designed to perform a relatively simple task: make loans to the dealers stocking vehicles, then the consumers who buy them. Now, Ford is relying on its finance unit to help fund multibillion-dollar outlays on electric and self-driving cars while it simultaneously racks up $11 billion in charges from a restructuring that could take years.

“It’s like the ballast that keeps the ship steady,” said Lawrence Orlowski, an analyst at S&P Global Ratings. “It’s a balancing act.”

Ford’s been selling fewer and fewer U.S. vehicles for the past three years, and it’s losing billions overseas, including in China, where its annual vehicle deliveries fell by half during that time span. The company’s full-year profit plunged by more than $3.6 billion last year, and it lost $1.7 billion in the fourth quarter.

The second-largest U.S. automaker would be far worse off without its Ford Motor Credit Co. unit, which is effectively funding turnaround efforts by routinely borrowing in the debt markets and paying a dividend back to the parent company. The credit unit is expected to contribute almost $3 billion annually to Ford over the next two years, according to Benchmark Co. analyst Mike Ward. That’s up from just a $400 million contribution in 2017.

Ford Credit borrowed around $10 billion in the U.S. investment-grade bond market in the past year, apart from funds raised in other currencies and securitized debt. By contrast, it’s been more than three years since Ford Motor last issued bonds, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, as investors fretted about the company’s high debt load and slowing sales.

It’s not going to get any easier for the carmaker. Amid growing fears of an industrywide downturn, Ford is rolling out a critically important series of new sport utility vehicles and redesigning the F-150, its most profitable and best-selling model. Analysts are already flagging cost and execution risk tied to those introductions, especially after Ford botched the launch of its Explorer SUV last year.

“It’s quite clear Ford is not where it should be, but the finance arm is a bright spot,” said David Whiston, an equity strategist with Morningstar in Chicago who rates the automaker’s shares the equivalent of a buy. “Obviously you want the whole company operating at full power, which you don’t have right now.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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