AutoNation CEO: Profits Now ... Storm Clouds Ahead

Despite the turmoil in the auto industry, AutoNation is out with better-than-expected results ... but the CEO sees tough sailing ahead.

“It’s the most difficult environment or market I’ve ever seen,” said AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson Thursday on CNBC. “... Industry retail sales for the quarter are down almost 50 percent, so the fact that we still delivered solid operating profits is quite an accomplishment.”

The auto retailer posted fourth quarter earnings of $0.12 a share, beating Wall Street expectations by a penny. (Get details of the company's earnings here).

Jackson said the fourth quarter was negatively impacted by the credit panic spurred by the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, but he said his company’s cost savings displayed its ability to address the challenges of credit panic.

“Over a year ago we saw storm clouds coming and announced a cost-cutting plan of $100 million, accelerated in the course of a year and can now tell you it’s $200 million on a run away basis,” said Jackson. “At the same time, we improved our operating cash efficiency and paid down $750 million of debt through the course of the year.”

Jackson expects continued weakness in auto sales in the first half of 2009, due to the lack of available credit.

"The precondition of the recovery of sales is restoration – not of easy credit, not of loose credit – just...normal, rational credit," he added.