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Ford eyes India, China to hit 50 percent growth target

A new Ford Ranger Wildtrak is displayed during the first media day of the 81st Geneva International Motor Show
A new Ford Ranger Wildtrak is displayed during the first media day of the 81st Geneva International Motor Show

By Bernie Woodall and Scott Malone

DETROIT (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co is aiming to expand its presence in the fast-growing auto markets of India and China with an eye toward increasing the number of vehicles it sells per year by 50 percent by the middle of the decade.

Ford also said on Tuesday that it would cut its debt by 15.7 percent to about $14 billion by the end of June, bringing it to less than half the $33.6 billion it was carrying in 2009. The company wants to regain an investment-grade debt rating, which it sees as necessary to resuming paying a dividend, but it does not expect to reinstate its dividend before next year.

Chief Financial Officer Lewis Booth told investors at a meeting in New York City that Ford planned to cut its overall debt to about $10 billion by the middle of the decade.

"We believe we will achieve and maintain an investment-grade rating through the business cycle," Booth said.

The No. 2 U.S. automaker, like its rival General Motors Co , is looking to markets other than the United States because of lingering weakness in the economy. The company said it would concentrate on small cars, popular in developing economies, and that it was aiming for sales of small cars to represent 55 percent of total vehicle sales by 2020.

Small cars currently represent about 48 percent of Ford's total vehicle sales.

"They are going to have to do a lot of scrambling in Asia," said George Magliano, director of auto industry research for IHS Automotive Insight. "They are latecomers in Asia. GM took the risk in China and has a bigger stake now."

A 50 percent sales increase by the middle of the decade would bring Ford's annual vehicle sales to 8 million.

Gary Bradshaw, a portfolio manager at Hodges Capital Management, which holds Ford shares, described the target of 8 million vehicles as "ambitious, but it's doable."

The Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker aims to triple its number of dealers in India to 340 by 2016. As it rolls out more small vehicles, the company aims to have more cars in the categories that Indian shoppers buy, global sales and marketing chief Jim Farley said.

It aims to raise this metric, known as "market coverage" to 68 percent in 2015 from the current 16 percent, Farley said. In China, Ford aims to grow its market coverage to 50 percent in 2015 from 22 percent.

LAGGING

In China, the world's largest auto market, Ford lags behind GM, Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T>, Volkswagen AG and Hyundai Motor Co <005380.KS> and their respective Chinese joint ventures.

Ford aims to double its dealer network in China by 2016, and adding 100 dealers this year.

The company plans to boost its production capacity in China to 1.1 million vehicles by 2012. That lags GM, which already produces more than 2.8 million vehicles a year in China and aims to grow production to 3.7 million by 2015.

The decision to focus on Asia in an obvious one, said Michelle Krebs, an analyst with Edmunds.com.

"That is where the growth is," Krebs said. "Whether they will meet their stretch goals, I'm not sure. They've got to get in there with products and plants because they have to ride that growth wave."

The company provided no update on its 2011 revenue and profit targets. Analysts look for full-year earnings of $1.93 per share, excluding items, up about 1 percent, with revenue rising 13.7 percent to $126.4 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

PAYING DOWN DEBT

The company's debt burden is a legacy of Chief Executive Alan Mulally's move to borrow $23.5 billion in late 2006 to fund his turnaround plan. That step, ahead of the recession and financial crisis, is widely credited with helping Ford to avoid bankruptcy, unlike its competitors GM and Chrysler, which is now managed by Italy's Fiat.

The three major credit ratings agencies have steadily raised Ford's rating in the past year. As it stands now, two agencies, Fitch Ratings and Moody's Investors Service, place Ford two notches below investment grade. Standard & Poor's has Ford three notches below investment grade.

Ford shares closed up 4 cents at $13.95 on the New York Stock Exchange. The stock is down 17 percent so far this year, less of a decline than the 22.5 percent drop of larger rival GM.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall and Scott Malone; editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Andre Grenon and Matthew Lewis)

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