NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Ford Motor's U.S. comeback continued in the first three months of 2012, but the economic crisis in Europe and weak sales ended up cutting the company's first-quarter profit.
Ford earned $1.4 billion, down 45% from $2.6 billion a year earlier. Net income came to 35 cents a share, while its operating income of 39 cents a share beat forecasts of 35 cents from analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters.
Ford sales slipped 2% to $32.4 billion, as the number of vehicles sold worldwide declined by 45,000 to 1.36 million.
The drop in profits and sales came even as its core North American auto unit posted its biggest profit since Ford started breaking out results on that geographic basis back in 2000. North America also posted an 11.5% profit margin that was the best on record, topping analysts' expectations.
The global sales drop included a 60,000-vehicle decline in European sales and a drop of 25,000 in its Asia-Pacific-Africa region. Ford maintained its European market share there but suffered along with the rest of the industry from the drop in overall demand for new cars there.
The decline in sales in Asia and Africa resulted in lost market share.
Those weaker sales led to a loss of $149 million in Europe, compared to a profit of $293 million from operations in the region a year earlier. Operations in its Asia-Pacific-Africa region also swung to a loss of $95 million from a $33 million profit, while earnings in South America declined sharply despite slightly higher sales.
Ford Credit earnings also fell due to fewer lease terminations, which resulted in fewer vehicles sold at a gain.
Ford was also somewhat a victim its recent success, as its effective tax rate rose to 33% from 8.5% a year earlier. The year-earlier tax rate was lower due to the accounting treatment of past losses..
Ford had already warned about losses in Europe. But the size of the loss shows the difficulties that Ford and rival General Motors (Fortune 500) face in stemming losses, especially in the face of weakening demand and many key markets, such as the United Kingdom, falling into recession.,
Automakers slashed their U.S. manufacturing capacity during the 2008 and 2009 financial crisis, resulting in record profits from U.S. operations even on lower sales. But closing plants in Europe is much tougher due to strict labor laws, resulting in significant excess automaking capacity.
Those cuts in capacity have left Ford with a much leaner and more profitable operation in North America.
Ford reported that profit in North America rose to $2.1 billion from $1.8 billion a year earlier, as revenue rose 4% to $18.6 billion, and the number of vehicles sold increased by 36,000.
"Our team delivered a solid performance during the first quarter, with particularly strong results in North America, despite a challenging global external environment," Ford CEO Alan Mulally said in the earnings statement.
The increased North America sales was due to much stronger industrywide demand from U.S. car buyers. Ford actually saw its U.S. market share decline in the quarter due to trimming its fleet sales to rental car companies and government.
While Ford's past capacity cuts in its U.S. operations have made it more profitable, it's actually left the company expecting that it won't be able to meet demand for some of its vehicles later this year. The company says it expects industrywide U.S. sales to be between 500,000 to 1 million vehicles more than it had expected when laying out its business plan for the year.
The capacity constraints will take place as Ford plants retool to start building new models and the production goes through a ramp-up process associated with hiring new workers for additional shifts.
Ford also announced it will offer 90,000 salaried employees and retirees the option to receive a voluntary lump-sum pension payment rather than ongoing pension payments.
The company said the offer, part of its plan to reduce its pension risks, is the first time an offer of this magnitude has been offered by a U.S. company for ongoing pension plans. The offer does not apply to factory workers belonging to the United Auto Workers union.
In 2011, the company reported its biggest profit since 1998, earning $20.2 billion. But partly due to problems in Europe, analysts are forecasting lower full-year earnings for the company.
Ford said Friday it still expects full-year pretax operating profit to be about equal to 2011, despite its guidance of $500 million to $600 million in European losses for the year. It said it still expects its Asia-Pacific-Africa region to be profitable for the year despite the first-quarter loss.
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