Ford's fortune is fragile without due caution

Tomorrow morning corks could be poppin' at Ford's world headquarters.

The automaker is expected to report a 2010 annual profit of about $8 billion, making it the most profitable year for Ford in a decade.

And while a moment of swagger and celebration should be granted, Ford should avoid the trap of overconfidence or complacency.

This year promises to be one of the toughest. The economy is still struggling, gasoline prices are rising and unemployment remains high. Some dealers say their new car sales still sputter.

GM and Toyota -- who each suffered dings to their reputation over the past couple years -- are back in the game with improved products. The 2012 Focus compact may be hot, but there's plenty of competition coming in that segment to give it a run for the money.

Ford's marketing challenges only mount this year. Ford rode a wave of good tidings for not taking federal bailout funds. But soon that luster likely will wear off on many fickle consumers with short memories.

And there's Ford's debt. The automaker paid down $12.8 billion in debt last year, but still has $20.9 billion in liabilities in its automotive operations. Most of the debt at GM and Chrysler was forgiven in bankruptcy.

Finally, there's Lincoln. Ford must revamp its remaining luxury brand. To do it right is going to cost billions.

Ford's 2010 results likely will reflect a golden year for the automaker. And that's worthy of commendation. The company is heading in the right direction.

But after a round of high-fives, CEO Alan Mulally & Co. will have to get back to business. c

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