Auto investor Kerkorian takes big stake in Ford

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Kirk Kerkorian is getting into the car business. Again.

The billionaire investor disclosed Monday that he had acquired a 4.7% stake in Ford Motor Co. and launched a tender offer to acquire even more shares, raising questions about his intentions for the troubled company.

His investment firm, Tracinda Corp., purchased 100 million Ford shares for $691 million this month and offered to buy 20 million additional shares for $8.50, a 13.3% premium over Ford’s closing price Friday. The added purchase would boost Kerkorian’s holdings in Ford to 5.6%. News of the offer drove Ford stock up 71 cents, or 9.5%, to $8.21.

Tracinda said in a statement that Ford was starting to get “highly meaningful traction” in its turnaround and that it would continue to show “significant improvements in its results going forward.”

The announcement raised speculation about the intentions of the 90-year-old tycoon, who splits his time between Beverly Hills and Las Vegas.

Kerkorian has a long history of shareholder activism in the auto industry, as an investor in General Motors Corp. and Chrysler. In both cases, after heated wrangling with company directors, Kerkorian sold his holdings.

“Initial professions notwithstanding, Kerkorian’s role in the auto industry has been anything but passive,” Peter Nesvold of Bear Stearns wrote.

Wall Street analysts theorized that the maverick investor might push Ford into an alliance with another automaker, seek asset sales or even covet the whole company.

In 1995, Kerkorian and his associates made an unsuccessful $22.8-billion hostile bid for Chrysler. Last year he again bid for Chrysler, then held by Germany’s Daimler, for $4.5 billion. That effort, too, failed.

In 2005, Tracinda took a small stake in GM, initially describing it as passive and praising company managers. But it soon raised its stake to 9.9%, insisted that a Kerkorian advisor join the board and called for an alliance with Renault-Nissan that never materialized. In November 2006, Kerkorian sold his GM investment at a slight loss.

Analysts drew parallels between the GM escapade and Monday’s announcement.

“In both cases, [Tracinda] first accumulated a stake of just under 5% and then tendered at roughly a 13% premium,” Nesvold said, suggesting that a Renault-Nissan deal could be advocated again.

Analysts also said Kerkorian could sell such assets as the Ford Motor Credit financing company, though they saw that option as more remote.

Ford remained low-key. Chief Executive Alan Mulally and Executive Chairman Bill Ford said they welcomed the “confidence in Ford and the progress we are making” and noted that “any investor can purchase Ford shares.”

Some observers thought there might be no hidden meaning.

“This time, I think he genuinely believes the turnaround is working,” said David Healy, an auto industry analyst at Burnham Securities. He noted that because the Ford family holds 40% of the company’s voting shares, “a takeover is a long shot.”

Ford’s pledge to return to long-term profitability by 2009 sets a high bar, analysts said. Thursday, Ford reported first-quarter profit of $100 million, its first earnings since the second quarter of 2007. But the company acknowledged that it would probably lose money in coming quarters.

This fall, Ford will begin selling its redesigned F-series pickup trucks, the top-selling vehicle in the U.S. and one of its biggest moneymakers. But with pickup sales pegged to the construction market, Ford is particularly vulnerable to the current housing downturn.

“A lot of the ability to hit their targets is going to depend on the state of the economy,” said Bruce Clark, a senior credit analyst at Moody’s Investors Service. Next year will “be more challenging than Ford anticipated.”

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