Bill Ford and his men got a quiet ride from press and analysts yesterday (Wednesday) - for a while. It seemed rather rude to rough up Ford just because he was a mere $US2 billion short of his own published expectations - when GM the previous day had delivered a thumping great loss of $1bn for the first quarter alone.

But gradually the peace thawed and proper conduct resumed. How did the board actually manage to get from a profit prediction of $7 billion a year for next year, to a position more than $2bn short of that - was the first really spiky question.

The answer, it seems is all in the North American market. Bill Ford talked about a "perfect storm" of external factors which have together conspired to pull the rug such that the potential $3 billion from that market is now a billion at best.

The mixture of this perfect storm is part a further rise in health and welfare costs; it is part the exchange rate; part the hike in raw materials - steel and oil in particular.

But in part also the mix is wrong. That means Ford is either unlucky or got it wrong in being under-represented in some product segments. In particular it is short of small saloons and SUVs and at time when the market has turned away from the gas-gulping trucks where Ford is the dominant market presence. Additionally, discounting remains rife in a highly competitive market.

All that stuff "put us off track," said Ford. And he was not going to go "chasing numbers that were based in a very different structural environment (meaning that late lamented $7 billion profit number.) What happens when people actually stop buying cars in near-record numbers is anybody's guess. When that happens the conditions Ford sees now as a perfect storm may well be regarded as benign.

Do they think that their business is now structurally unsound? Not really. There is a way to go on product quality and variety and there is work to be done still on the cost base - health care costs included. It sounded, said his tormenter, very much like the story as before. And yet there has been a massive downward shift in the earnings estimates. Has Ford now got a better handle on how competitive the market is; because its sales targets have been well off? asked a journalist. They think they have a grip on it.

For once there is a ring of confidence around Ford of Europe and a positive glow from Ford South America. In Europe they have the best market share for four years with the charge led by the Focus. The Premier Auto Group (Jaguar, Land-Rover, Volvo and Aston Martin) is doing better than the internal profit forecasts, apparently. Land Rover has a fantastic order book for the Range Rover Sport and 60% of that is for the premium supercharged version. Volvo sales are up 8% in quarter one. And Aston Martin? The little beauty has broken into profit after all these years. Now that's a perfect message to hear within a perfect storm.

Rob Golding