Ford Motor Co. has nearly halved its quarterly dividend to 40 cents a share, saving the company about $658 million a year as it tries to chop $3 billion in expenses.

The cut in the return Ford pays its stockholders for investing in the company indicates the cost-cutting program has reached all parts of its operations.At the previous quarterly dividend level of 75 cents a share, Ford paid out about $1.4 billion each year to roughly 300,000 shareholders. The automaker will pay $751.5 million a year at the new dividend level.

"Ford's policy is to sustain the dividend during normal cyclical downturns," Chairman Harold Poling said. "But the situation we face today is much more than a normal trough in the business cycle and in automotive earnings.

"The automotive industry is in the midst of one of the toughest and most challenging periods it has ever confronted."

The move, approved by the company's board of directors at its regular monthly meeting, means that each of the Big Three automakers has cut shareholder dividends in the past three months.

The last time Ford lowered its dividend was when it eliminated it altogether in the first quarter of 1982, when the industry was suffering from a recession.

Earlier this year, General Motors Corp. cut its 75-cent quarterly dividend to 40 cents and Chrysler Corp. halved its 30-cent-a-share quarterly dividend.

Each of the Big Three has initiated cost-cutting programs aimed at slashing billions of dollars from their expenses.

These programs and other problems, including the recession and the Persian Gulf War, have put the Big Three under pressure to cut their dividends, which are quarterly payouts to shareholders.

"I think you would be ignoring some signals if you thought (Ford) would pay the regular dividend," said auto analyst David Healy of the investment banker Barclays de Zoete Wedd in New York.

"I think they will cut the dividend probably at least in half, maybe two-thirds," he said.

Ford last year reported earnings of $860 million, down 77 percent from 1989 earnings of $3.8 billion. Revenue grew slightly, to $97.7 billion from $96.1 billion.

The automaker resisted pressure last January to cut the quarterly dividend. However, one month later its Canadian subsidiary, Ford of Canada, eliminated its dividend.

That subsidiary, which makes some of the company's most profitable cars and pickup trucks, reported a loss of about $48.5 million for 1990.