It was a sure sign that capitalism was in crisis when the bosses of a renowned manufacturer had to field silly questions about whether things might be easier if they had followed their competitors into bankruptcy. After reporting surprisingly good quarterly earnings of $2.1bn and predicting a profit for 2010, a year ahead of plan, such questions are fading for Ford. The carmaker used its own momentum and competitors’ woes to gain US market share in 17 of the past 18 months. This was quite a turnround: 2009 was the first year Ford lifted its share since 1995.

Even so, it is hard not to note the paradox of Ford’s self-reliance. Its net debt remains at $9bn, which improved from $12.4bn at the end of 2008 but not nearly fast enough to win back an investment-grade credit rating. By the same measure, bankruptcy allowed General Motors to build a $7bn net cash position from $31.8bn in net debt at the end of 2008.

Further progress is likely, but more of it will have to come from an improving global car market and less at the expense of competitors. Recent gains can be traced back to 2006 when Ford was the sick man of Detroit’s Big Three. Incoming chief Alan Mulally was both lucky and smart. By in essence mortgaging the company – before the credit crisis would have made it impossible – he ensured that Ford got a head-start on a bold restructuring that is now bearing fruit.

What will Mr Mulally do for an encore? Investors who have seen their shares rise 80 per cent since 2006 and 170 per cent during the past year should understand that the easy money has been made. But even when shares stumble, as they did on Tuesday, they would hardly trade places with wiped-out GM and Chrysler shareholders.

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