Senkakus backlash slashes carmakers’ earnings outlook

by Kayo Mimizuka

Kyodo

Rampant anti-Japan sentiment in China looks certain to slash the full-year earnings results of Japanese automakers operating in the country, although some analysts argue the bitter fallout from the Senkakus row could become a stepping stone to enhanced global competitiveness.

In October, Japan’s major carmakers saw demand in the Chinese market virtually halve year on year in the wake of the government’s nationalization of the disputed Senkaku Islands and the ensuing boycott of Japanese products, prompting some to revise downward their fiscal 2012 earnings projections.

Nissan Motor Co. was among the most badly affected manufacturers, as it has the highest exposure to China and generates roughly 30 percent of its global sales in the world’s largest auto market.

At a recent news conference, however, Nissan Chief Operating Officer Toshiyuki Shiga emphasized that its operations in China are gradually returning to normal, shrugging off questions about whether the firm has concentrated too heavily in the Chinese market.

Shiga said Nissan does not plan to alter its current investment plan, but he didn’t exclude the possibility of rethinking future investments in China at some point down the road.

“We have to continue monitoring the future course of Japan-China relations, and consider our future investments carefully,” Shiga explained.

Nissan has projected that the territorial dispute will cost it roughly ¥60 billion in consolidated operating profit in the current business year, lowering its global sales target to 5.08 million units from 5.35 million.

“Nissan may have devoted too much effort” to its operations in the world’s second-largest economy, said Shigeru Matsumura, an equity researcher at SMBC Friend Research Center. “(Relying only on) China won’t do, and investors would not buy stock in such companies. Automakers should invest in a variety of countries” amid heightened risks in the global economy.

Honda Motor Co., which has also invested heavily in China, trimmed its full-year earnings projection and now expects its Chinese sales in the January-December period to fall by 130,000 units to 620,000 units.

In contrast, Toyota Motor Corp. is likely to more than offset plummeting sales in the Chinese market thanks to significant growth in Southeast Asia and North America, which has enabled the automaker to unveil relatively bright results for the April-September half and upwardly revise its full-year earnings estimate.

Analysts say Toyota has emerged relatively unscathed from the Senkakus row because it has been lagging its major rivals in China, noting the company’s sales in the country accounted for just 12 percent of its parent-only global sales in the last fiscal year.

But despite Nissan and Honda’s woes, major carmakers — whether Japanese or overseas — are unlikely to downplay the importance of establishing a strong presence in the world’s leading auto market.

Mitsubishi Motors Corp. President Osamu Masuko told a news conference that it is “impossible to completely avoid doing business in China,” adding the company has no plans to reduce its presence in the communist country.

SMBC’s Matsumura said Toyota’s upward revision of its group operating profit by ¥50 billion even as it remains unclear how long the boycott of Japanese products will last can be interpreted as a “message that it doesn’t think it will end up a loser in China.”

“Japanese automakers have managed to overcome the (March 2011) earthquake-tsunami catastrophe and the record Thai flooding (that affected many Japanese plants in Thailand last year),” Matsumura pointed out. “If they can pull through and learn a lesson from recent incidents in China, they will be able to grow stronger (and boost their competitiveness and presence in the global market).”