Morgan Stanley downgrades Ford and says dividend at risk

  • Morgan Stanley downgrades Ford, citing a risk to the company's dividend and pressure on cash and earnings.
  • The automaker is suffering from the appearance that it lacks transparency and decisive action.
Ford Motor Company president and CEO James Hackett
Rebecca Cook | Reuters
Ford Motor Company president and CEO James Hackett

Morgan Stanley downgraded Ford on Friday, saying its earnings and cash flow are under pressure and its dividend is at risk.

The number two U.S. automaker is suffering from a perception among investors that it lacks transparency and is failing to take quick, decisive action in executing its turnaround plan, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas said in a note.

"While we do believe investors will eventually pay for details and execution, we think the market needs more evidence of success before embracing the Ford restructuring story," Jonas said.

Jonas downgraded Ford from overweight, the equivalent of a buy rating, to equal weight, which is essentially a hold. He lowered his 12- to 18-month price target from $14 to $10 a share.

Shares of Ford fell about 2 percent in early trading Friday, at around $8.34 a share.

Ford's recently announced $11 billion restructuring plan is a "crucial step" for the company, but it hasn't provided enough detail on how that money will be spent, Jonas said. Its share price has fallen more than 30 percent this year.

The company also canceled its investor day in September, which worries Jonas.

"We had hopes that Ford management would move the other way with transparency and increase engagement with investors on long-term strategy in a more proactive way, which is especially important during uncertain 'shoulder periods' of the cycle," Jonas said.

The company hasn't provided enough details on the automaker's plan to invest in autonomous driving and other future technology either, he said. It appears to be behind competitors, such as larger rival General Motors, which has attracted outside investments in its Cruise Automation unit.

Japanese conglomerate SoftBank and automaker Honda recently made investments in GM Cruise, which is developing autonomous driving technology for the automaker. Morgan Stanley values GM Cruise at $11.5 billion, more than 10 times what it values Argo AI, an autonomous driving research company Ford has taken a significant stake in.

Despite all this, Jonas says CEO Jim Hackett is a visionary leader, who thinks unconventionally and is taking a long-term approach to managing the business.

"There are solutions, and management has a window of opportunity to execute," Jonas said. "While we do believe investors will eventually pay for details and execution, we think the market needs more evidence of success before embracing the Ford restructuring story."

In a marketing move announced Friday, Ford announced and ad campaign featuring "Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston that kicks off during college football games this weekend.

"Talk doesn't get things done, building does ... like we have for the last 115 years," Cranston says against a variety of scenes that poke fun at today's high-tech visionaries while touching on the company's historical American roots and "Built Ford Tough" slogan of past campaigns. "Let the other guys keep dreaming about the future. We'll be the ones building it."

— CNBC's Phil LeBeau contributed to this article.