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Japan Inc. doubles profit on quick cost-cutting moves

by Anna Mukai

Bloomberg

Companies that made tough decisions about exiting businesses, closing factories and revamping management led to a doubling of corporate earnings last quarter, now at the highest level since 2007.

Net income jumped to about ¥5.5 trillion at more than 1,280 of the largest listed nonfinancial firms, the most since the Great Recession six years ago, based on data compiled by Bloomberg. The figure was up from ¥2.25 trillion a year ago, the fastest jump since 2010.

Companies showing profit surges include Panasonic Corp., which has cut 71,000 jobs; Mazda Motor Corp., which is shifting car production to Mexico; and Toyota Motor Corp., which overhauled management and halted new factory construction.

The gains, also fueled by a weaker yen, contrast with disappointing results at firms such as Sony Corp., which resisted calls to spin off assets or close money-losing businesses.

“Companies that made efforts to cut costs and restructure before the yen started to weaken are the ones really showing growth,” said Tetsuro Sugiura, chief economist at Mizuho Research Institute. “Japanese companies had fallen back in global competition because they weren’t able to cut businesses and cut people or were late in doing this.”

Panasonic has undergone one of the more dramatic makeovers, shifting its focus from consumer electronics to such alternative power products as solar panels and batteries. The company, once a leading TV maker along with Sony and Sharp Corp., plans to quit plasma TVs by March.

Kazuhiro Tsuga, who took over as Panasonic president in June 2012, has exited some unprofitable smartphone and plasma panel operations. Japan’s third-largest listed employer has been trimming its workforce since 2011 and last month raised its forecast for net income this fiscal year to ¥100 billion.

“Panasonic is going forward in rebuilding its business, and their path to recovery is clear,” said Satoshi Yuzaki, general manager of Takagi Securities Co.

Operating income at Sharp, which shut some factories and sold units, beat estimates in the second quarter. The company last month reported its first net income since 2011 as the weaker yen and reduced costs helped its display business return to profit.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda, 57, in March cleared out the remnants of top management inherited when he took the helm in 2009 in a move to restore the fortunes of the world’s biggest carmaker after years of turmoil.

The carmaker, Japan’s largest manufacturer, raised its full-year net income forecast 13 percent to a record $¥1.67 trillion. Profit in the three months ended September jumped 70 percent to ¥438 billion, more than that of the next five biggest Japanese carmakers combined.

Earlier this year, the carmaker announced its decision to halt planned factory openings for three years to avoid taking on excess capacity.

“We want to be strategic in our investments,” Nobuyori Kodaira, a Toyota executive vice president, said at the time.

The move signals a new course for the carmaker after a decade of racing to increase output.

Mazda raised its forecast for net income this fiscal year to a record ¥100 billion, 30 percent more than previously projected and almost triple last year’s profit.

The carmaker, Japan’s most export-dependent and which posted four straight annual losses until 2012, responded to the losses by cutting jobs, moving some production to Mexico and forging shared production agreements with rivals including Toyota and Fiat.

The profit increase comes as pressure mounts on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his “Abenomics.” Monetary easing and fiscal stimulus haven’t been enough to accelerate the economic recovery without the “third arrow” of structural reform, even as a weaker currency stokes some exporters’ profit.

Gross domestic product rose at an annualized 1.9 percent in the quarter ended in September, down from 3.8 percent the previous quarter, the Cabinet Office reported last week.

The growth slowdown draws attention to the lingering question of whether companies benefitting from Abenomics will return the favor by investing more and raising wages to stimulate the broader economy.

Cash per share for all companies in the Topix index climbed to ¥597 in the same quarter, 49 percent more than a year earlier, the fastest growth and the highest since at least 2004.

A sustainable economic recovery requires automakers to increase capital spending, spreading new business from parts makers to materials producers and construction companies, said Keiichi Ito, a quantitative strategist at SMBC Nikko Securities Inc.

The increase in profit last quarter hasn’t been enough to spark such a surge across the economy. Companies eased off on capital-spending growth in the second quarter and failed to step up exports. Corporate investment increased 0.7 percent, down from 4.4 percent.

Abe needs to motivate companies that are still in cost-cutting mode, said Ito of SMBC Nikko.

For Sony Chief Executive Officer Kazuo Hirai, the unexpected loss in the three months ended September dashed expectations that the country’s biggest electronics exporter was back on track after a record loss in fiscal 2012. The slump prompted questions about the company’s course since Hirai took over in April 2012 from Howard Stringer, who oversaw four straight annual losses.

“Sony’s ability to change tack and act early when conditions deteriorate will be tested,” Masahiro Ono and Hiroshi Taguchi, analysts at Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities Co. , wrote in a report dated last Thursday. “Asset sales to obtain cash flow and maintain net profitability are more likely to accelerate.”

Hirai, 52, is holding on to unprofitable units even as consumers shift to tablets and smartphones, markets dominated by Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co.

“Sony has to get out of a lot businesses and they are going too slow,” said Edwin Merner, the president in Tokyo of Atlantis Investment Research Corp., which manages about $300 million in assets. “The president is failing and if he continues to behave the way he has, the company will fail.”

Sony has dropped 1.7 percent, while Panasonic has climbed 7.6 percent in Tokyo trading since Oct. 31, the day both companies reported earnings.

Companies including Japan Tobacco Inc. and Nissan are taking the opportunity to revamp operations.

Japan Tobacco, Asia’s largest listed cigarette seller, said it will take steps to reduce costs in Japan, where demand is slumping. The company plans to cut 1,600 jobs and close four factories in Japan to boost profitability, it said Oct. 30, a day before announcing quarterly earnings. Net income jumped 65 percent to ¥139 billion in the second quarter to September as sales rose 12 percent to ¥611.2 billion.

“People are looking at companies already showing recovery signs and asking whether they’d take this opportunity to clean up their business structure,” said Ito of SMBC Nikko. “That process is going to be absolutely necessary for a recovery.”