DETROIT — The Fitch Ratings agency lifted Ford's credit rating from junk status to investment grade Tuesday, a sign that the company's recovery from near collapse is almost complete.
But Ford Motor Co. needs another agency, either Standard & Poor's or Moody's, to make the same upgrade before it can get its blue oval logo, factories and other assets out of hock.
Ford lost its investment grade status in 2005 as it was losing billions of dollars when the SUV and truck boom went bust. The company mortgaged most of its assets to borrow $23.5 billion. That allowed Ford to revamp its cars and trucks and avoid bankruptcy protection. Crosstown rivals General Motors Chrysler didn't have enough cash to make it through the 2009 economic downturn and were forced into government-funded bankruptcies
Investment grade means that debt has a low risk of default, while junk status is considered poor credit quality. Companies with higher credit ratings can charge more for their bonds and generally get lower interest rates on their borrowing.
Fitch raised Ford's credit to "BBB minus" from "BB plus" Tuesday. The ratings agency said that Ford's work to repair its balance sheet and improve its array of vehicles in recent years, "has put the company in a solid position to withstand the significant cyclical and secular pressures faced by the global auto industry."
Ford's cash generation and lower costs will give it the financial flexibility it needs to stay at investment grade in a period of economic stress, Fitch expects.
Ford began its turnaround in 2006 when Bill Ford Jr. fired himself as CEO and hired Alan Mulally from aviation giant Boeing Co. The automaker used the borrowing, which Mulally calls a "giant home improvement loan," to restructure. It closed plants, shed brands and cut its global workforce by one-third. Ford has now reported billions in profits for three straight years. It resumed paying a dividend last month for the first time since September 2006.
Last year, the Dearborn-based company reported net income of $20.2 billion, or $4.94 per share, but much of that came from an accounting change in the fourth quarter.
Ford shares rose 19 cents, or 1.7 percent, to $11.54 in morning trading Tuesday. Its shares have traded in a 52-week range of $9.05 to $16.18.
Getting that upgrade from a second agency may take some time. Standard & Poor's and Moody's both have the company rated one notch below investment grade, with Standard & Poor's giving the company a stable outlook.
Robert Schulz, an S&P credit analyst, said Tuesday that the stable outlook means Ford has less than a one-third chance of getting a rating change in either direction. "If we thought there was more than a third chance, we'd have a positive outlook on them," Schulz said.
Ford still has risks including how it plans to deal with sales declines and large losses in Europe, and whether its massive China expansion plan will work, Schulz said.
U.S. auto sales are recovering well and Ford's performance in North America has been solid, Schulz said. "The rest of the world is a more open question given some of the uncertainties," he said.
Messages were left Tuesday by The Associated Press for spokesmen and analysts at Moody's.
Fitch's outlook for Ford is stable, and it also noted risks to Ford's finances. In a statement, the agency said the biggest risk is the strength and pace of the global economic recovery and the "durability" of demand for automobiles, especially as Western Europe heads into recession conditions.
But Fitch said the company's net cash of $10 billion at the end of last year and other sources of cash should give Ford enough money to weather a severe auto sales downturn.
Ford, Fitch said, can break even at a lower sales volume because of its restructuring, and it now has the right vehicles to weather a downturn. "Ford's more balanced product portfolio has put it in a better position to weather the likely mix shifts to smaller vehicles typically seen in economic downturns," Fitch said.
Ford Chief Financial Officer Bob Shanks said in a statement that the company plans to get strong investment grade ratings and maintain them "throughout an economic cycle."