Turnaround for Big Three automakers? Not so fast

By Chris Isidore, senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- One year ago, the U.S. auto industry faced the worst crisis in its history.

Chrysler Group filed for bankruptcy on April 30, the same week that GM announced a plan that put it on the path toward its own bankruptcy a month later. Ford Motor (F, Fortune 500) had just reported huge losses.

So by comparison, conditions for Detroit's Big Three today represent an almost shocking turnaround.

Ford just reported a profit of $2.1 billion. While GM has yet to report a profit, the company managed to cough up enough cash to make an early repayment of $5.8 billion in loans to the U.S. Treasury.

And Chrysler Group just reported that despite another loss, it is no longer burning through its cash reserves.

But many experts still think it's too soon to call a turnaround in the domestic auto industry.

"I think the turnaround time isn't going to be as rapid as many think," said Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends at TrueCar.com.

Forecasts are that U.S. auto sales will be around 1 million vehicles in April. While that would be up more than 20% from year-ago sales, it'd be off about 6% from March levels.

"I think for all three, this is a fragile recovery," said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Edmunds.com. "We're looking at an April where sales are down from March, and we don't see the second half sales that robust. It's going to be a little bumpy."

Profits still a challenge

The first challenge will be for GM and Chrysler to join Ford and begin reporting profits.

Many expect GM to be profitable later this year, but it will be months before it can start selling stock to the public again, a necessary step to repaying most of the $50-billion bailout it received from Treasury.

Chrysler has a relatively limited pipeline of new cars compared to Ford and GM, and it will be a few years before it sees an influx of new vehicles from Fiat Group, the Italian automaker that took a controlling interest in the company during the bankruptcy process.

Chrysler's plan calls for it to bide its time, controlling costs tightly enough to preserve cash while it waits for that help to arrive.

For Ford, the biggest challenge is to make enough cash to trim the debt weighing down its balance sheet, debt that GM and Chrysler were able to shed much more cheaply during bankruptcy.

Even Ford executives cautioned that the huge profits from the first quarter would be tough to match going forward.

"(Ford) was smart enough to develop a strong product line-up and restructure its business so it can make money on lower volume. But it's also been lucky," said Shelly Lombard, debt analyst with research firm Gimme Credit. "We expect Ford to keep being smart; however it may not be as lucky."

Learning to live with low sales

The best thing going for all three companies is the ability to operate much leaner than ever before.

Cost-saving moves the automakers recently won from the United Auto Workers union, like closing factories, ending job guarantees and shedding legacy costs like health care for retirees, has given some experts hope that all three companies could soon be reporting strong profits.

"Now that the structural costs have been reduced to the magnitude that they have, the upside potential for the industry is dramatic," said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, a Michigan think tank.

Cole also believes that the recall problems with Toyota Motor (TM) have helped bring about a change in customer perception of the quality of domestics versus imports.

"The great favor that Toyota has done for all of the domestics is to diminish the perceived quality gap," he said.

But it will be a smaller industry that they'll be competing in for years to come. Few expect U.S. sales rebound to the levels of the last decade anytime soon. That's partly because many of those sales were financed by the same cheap money that fueled the housing bubble.

If the U.S. economic recovery continues to be modest and unemployment stays high, as most economists forecast, sales will continue to be weak.

And weak demand isn't just limited to the U.S. market. Sales are forecast to fall later this year in Europe after the end of "Cash for Clunkers"-type programs in many countries there. Sales in Asia, particularly in China, are expected to continue to grow, but at a far more modest pace than in 2009. To top of page

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