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Weak yen no respite for ailing electronics trio

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

A weaker yen, credited to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic policies, may be helping exporters in general but struggling electronics makers are not yet out of the woods.

Three makers — Sony Corp., Panasonic Corp. and Sharp Corp. — which posted their fiscal 2012 results by Tuesday, are having a hard time rebuilding their core businesses despite desperate efforts to streamline.

“This year, we’ll make a profit from our electronics, not by selling assets,” Sony Chief Financial Officer Masaru Kato declared at a press conference May 9.

For the first time in five years, Sony saw a net profit — ¥43.03 billion — in the 2012 business year that ended in March. It posted a ¥230 billion operating profit. The year before comparable figures were losses of ¥456.66 billion — a record — and ¥67.3 billion, respectively.

But the firm is not yet ready to celebrate: Much of the profit came from selling assets, such as its New York headquarters.

Despite Sony’s reputation as a creator of innovative electronics products, in recent years its profit engines have been its financial, music and movie businesses.

Fiscal 2012 was no exception. All five of Sony’s electronics divisions were in the red.

Sony President Kazuo Hirai, who took the helm in April 2012, has vowed to derive profits from electronics.

The firm is aiming for an operating profit of ¥230 billion this fiscal year, but SMBC Friend Research Center analyst Hiroshi Sakai observed that “without restoring the electronics business, it will be difficult to achieve” that target.

Amid the rapid growth of the smartphone market, Sony has seen its flagship smartphone, the Xperia Z, gain worldwide popularity, with 33 million overall handset models sold in fiscal 2012.

Yet once again the firm failed to turn around its TV business, which lost money for the ninth year in a row.

Because of falling prices and weak demand, TVs are also a headache for Sony’s rivals, including Panasonic and Sharp, both of which failed to make money on TVs in fiscal 2012.

Unlike Sony, Panasonic and Sharp logged huge losses, despite projecting a profit at the beginning of the fiscal year.

Panasonic said May 10 that it posted a ¥754.2 billion net loss for fiscal 2012, while Sharp posted a record group net loss of ¥545.35 billion. The two firms posted large-scale losses two business years in a row.

Panasonic saw a ¥772.17 billion net loss in fiscal 2011, one of the worst-ever losses for a nonfinancial Japanese firm, while Sharp logged a ¥376 billion net loss the same year.

Panasonic’s loss from fiscal 2012 derived from restructuring costs, including cutting thousands of employees, downsizing its plasma TV business and writedowns in its sluggish businesses, including mobile phones and lithium-ion batteries.

Nevertheless, market observers say Panasonic appears finally ready to make a new start.

“It seems that the firm has cleaned up the 10 years of negative legacy in the past two years,” said Sakai of SMBC Friend Research Center.

Panasonic in fact boosted its operating profit 268 percent to ¥160.94 billion thanks to aggressive cost-cutting and reform programs.

The company aims to turn a net profit of ¥50 billion and up operating profit to ¥250 billion for fiscal 2013.

As for Sharp, which also spent billions of yen on restructuring and reform programs, Sakai said a key is restoring its LCD-related businesses, especially small and midsize LCD panels, as smartphones and tablets continue to grow globally.

Critical for Sharp’s success is the ability to sell LCD panels to big smartphone makers like Apple Inc.

No matter how much the company cuts costs, “it won’t make a comeback unless the LCD business is restored,” Sakai said.

Fiscal 2012 was hard on Sharp. The firm sought a tieup with Taiwan’s Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. to get a capital injection, but when negotiations stalled the company turned to rival maker Samsung Electronics Co. for help.

Like Sony and Panasonic, Sharp started fiscal 2012 with a new president who vowed to turn the company around. But Sharp announced Tuesday that President Takashi Okuda will step down in June, an uncommonly short stint for the leader of a big electronics firm.