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For new Ford CEO Fields, stock price hinges on flawless production of aluminum pickup truck

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DETROIT - For all the miracles Alan Mulally pulled off at Ford Motor Co., one eluded him. He couldn't make the stock price leap.

Soon, the problem of boosting Ford's stock will fall to Mark Fields. On Thursday, Ford officially announced that Mulally would retire on July 1 and Fields would replace him as CEO. Fields was widely seen as the heir apparent after being named chief operating officer late in 2012.

Under Mulally, Ford underwent a massive restructuring, resumed paying a dividend and ran off a string of highly profitable quarters. While the stock has doubled from around $8 when Mulally took over in 2006, it hasn't closed above $18 for more than two years. For the past three months, it's been stuck between $14.50 and $16.50 as harsh winter weather kept buyers away from showrooms.

The stock could stay in limbo for a while. Ford has warned that pretax profit will fall to between $7 billion and $8 billion this year from $8.5 billion in 2013, as it launches a record 23 vehicles worldwide and builds seven plants, including four in China. Investors don't often embrace reports of lower profits.

Analysts don't see much upside for the stock until Ford starts selling a revolutionary new aluminum-body F-150 pickup late this year. The truck, which will be 700 pounds lighter than the current version, could get close to 30 miles per gallon of gas on the highway, far better than its competition.

But Ford faces the gargantuan tasks of retooling factories to produce such a large body out of something other than steel, and of convincing skeptical buyers that an alloy version of the nation's top-selling vehicle is just as tough as the old one.

"If they can pull it off, I think it could sure be good for Ford, and that stock will take off and go," said Gary Bradshaw, a portfolio manager with Hodges Capital in Dallas. "I guess if you get 30 miles per gallon, we'll all be driving one."

Many analysts say Ford's stock is now undervalued. The dividend yields just over 3 per cent per year, better than 10-year U.S. Treasury bills, and the company's balance sheet has been cleaned up. Its debt is now investment grade.

Standard & Poors analyst Efriam Levy put an $18 price target on the stock and reiterated his "Buy" opinion. Ford shares closed Thursday down 24 cents at $15.91.

For the stock to grow, many think that Fields has to move forward with Mulally's plans for key new vehicles, reverse losses in Europe and South America and keep growing the business in Asia.

"Ford is set up for a really nice 2015. The table's being set for a really strong performance in the U.S., Europe and China next year," said Morningstar analyst David Whiston.

He thinks Fields should buy back shares because they're cheap at the moment. But Whiston doesn't expect that to happen because Ford is investing in future vehicles and growth overseas.

Bradshaw, whose firm holds about 250,000 Ford shares, doesn't see any other catalysts for the stock in the near term unless the global economy picks up. But he thinks Ford stock will eventually break out of its shackles, largely because Mulally has set Fields up to succeed.

"My guess is Mulally's got the thing teed up, and he's probably got a great bench," Bradshaw said.

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