It's probably not the result that Ford (NYSE: F ) shareholders were hoping to see: The Blue Oval's U.S. sales fell a tiny bit in September versus year-ago totals, even as some rivals made big gains.

Ford sold 174,976 vehicles in the U.S. in September, down just a couple hundred from last September's total. That was below analyst estimates, which called for gains of about 2.3%. It's also far behind the double-digit year-over-year gains posted by key rivals, including global giants Toyota (NYSE: TM ) and Volkswagen (NASDAQOTH: VLKAY.PK).

On the surface, that's a tough result. Is there a silver lining?

Some bright spots, but clearly Ford is lagging rivals
There were at least a few bright spots in Ford's monthly sales report. Sales of Ford's much-acclaimed Focus compact continued to be white-hot, with totals nearly double those of last September. The all-important F-series pickup line posted its best September since 2007, with a small gain over solid year-ago numbers. And the all-new Escape continued to sell strongly, posting a 14% gain.

Looking deeper, one could argue that Ford should get at least a partial mulligan for September, as sales of its bread-and-butter Fusion sedan were off sharply from strong year-ago totals. There's a good reason for that, though: The last of the 2012 Fusions have mostly been sold off, while the first examples of the all-new 2013 model are just now beginning to arrive at dealers. Additionally, Ford has discontinued its compact pickup, the Ranger, and the last examples have mostly been sold, depressing year-over-year comparisons a bit further.

But for Ford shareholders, that seems like weak sauce. Sure, Toyota's big 42% gain can be partially explained by its weak results last year in the wake of the Japanese tsunami. But Hyundai (NASDAQOTH: HYMTF.PK) posted a 23% gain, VW was up 32%, and Detroit rival Chrysler managed a 12% bump. In fact, of the major automakers, only Nissan (NASDAQOTH: NSANY.PK) joined Ford in losing ground.

Ford's cars and trucks are as good -- and as competitive -- as they've ever been. What's going on here?

A classic problem of supply and demand
To find the silver lining in Ford's sales report, you'll have to look quite a bit deeper. One very important factor: Sales of some key Ford models have grown to the point where factories and suppliers are maxed out. Many Ford plants are already running around the clock, and Ford -- and importantly, key suppliers -- are reluctant to make the heavy investments in new assembly lines that would be necessary to increase production.

So what can Ford do? Any business school student would have the easy answer to a situation where demand might be outpacing supply: Increase prices. While it's not obvious, that may be what Ford is in fact doing. Ford hasn't made big bumps to its official suggested retail prices, but it does appear to be reducing its spending on incentives, those cash-back or cheap-financing deals one sees advertised on TV. By offering fewer discounts, Ford is effectively increasing its prices somewhat.

Analysts at TrueCar.com said on Tuesday that Ford's per-vehicle spending on incentives fell 7.8% in September, versus its spending in September of 2011, and was down nearly 2% since August. Ford's spending on incentives is still high relative to some of its peers, like notoriously stingy Toyota, but it has fallen considerably from the levels that were typical a couple of years ago -- even as rivals like Hyundai and Volkswagen have increased their spending.

This is how Ford does things now
I don't think it's any coincidence that Hyundai and VW have seen big sales increases as their spending on incentives has increased. And I don't think it's any coincidence that Ford's incentives are falling given the company's production constraints and its overall approach to pricing under CEO Alan Mulally.

Mulally often talks about "matching supply to real demand." It's a key part of the "One Ford" plan, the blueprint for the company's historic turnaround. Plain and simple, "real demand" means demand at a price that is profitable for Ford. Ford has recently shown in Europe that it would rather lose market share than give big discounts. At a time when Ford is facing some production constraints in North America, following a similar strategy may be the best move for the company's bottom line.

But is it working? We'll know next month, when Ford reports third-quarter earnings.

Ford has been performing incredibly well as a company over the past few years -- it's making good vehicles, is consistently profitable, recently reinstated its dividend, and has done a remarkable job paying down its debt. But Ford's stock seems stuck in neutral. Does this create an incredible buying opportunity, or are there hidden risks with the stock that investors need to know about? To answer that, one of our top equity analysts has compiled a premium research report with in-depth analysis on whether Ford is a buy right now, and why. Simply click here to get instant access to this premium report.


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