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Warren Buffett quips that when the tide goes out, you can see who's not wearing a bathing suit. And he's right: Recessions separate weak companies from strong ones.

The companies that handle a downturn best, particularly in the hardest-hit industries, are likely to lead when the economy rebounds.

Few sectors have been hit harder than the U.S. auto industry, making Ford Motor -- so far -- one of today's most obvious odds beaters.

Ford is the only major U.S. automaker that hasn't needed a bailout or gone into bankruptcy, because it was smart enough to raise a lot of cash a few years back. And there's another key factor: "Over the past couple of years, Ford has made a lot of improvements in quality," says David Whiston, who covers Ford for Morningstar.

In 2007, Ford won more initial-quality survey awards from J.D. Power and Associates than any other automaker. This year, Ford placed above the industry average for dependability, with blue-oval nameplates such as the Focus, Fusion and Taurus beating even well-respected rivals from BMW, Mercedes and Volvo.

Higher quality is one reason so many Ford models are now hits. Last month, Ford sales dropped just 10.7%, compared with a decline of 28% for the U.S. auto industry overall and pullbacks of 32% for Toyota Motor and 29% for Honda Motor. Incentives helped. Raising all that money a few years ago was also key to Ford's relative success in June. "If you're a consumer who is anti-bailout and wants to buy American, there's only one kind of car you can buy," Whiston says. That would be Ford.

Still, problems abound. Ford is leaking cash. Whiston doesn't expect it to break even until 2011. And Ford's product mix is too heavily tilted toward gas guzzlers such as SUVs. If the economy continues to sputter, Ford may yet need a bailout. So even though Ford is defying the odds right now, it's riskier than most names on this list.

Continued: JPMorgan Chase on the hunt

 
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