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Sony expected to lower profit outlook again

by Mariko Yasu

Bloomberg

Nintendo Co. shocked investors last week by lowering its profit forecast for the year. Analysts are concerned Sony Corp. could be next.

At least nine analysts cut their profit estimates for Sony over the past two months after slow holiday sales of televisions, personal computers and cameras. The average of 20 brokerage estimates compiled by Bloomberg predicts that net income will be ¥23.1 billion for the year ending on March 31, more than 20 percent less than Sony’s latest forecast.

Shrinking demand for TVs and PCs is increasing pressure on Chief Executive Officer Kazuo Hirai as he tries to wring benefits out of the company’s holdings, from consumer electronics to mobile phones to entertainment.

After a surprise quarterly loss, a further miss may force Hirai to revisit more drastic ideas, including reassessing TV and PC manufacturing.

“There will likely be a downward revision,” said Takashi Watanabe, a Tokyo-based analyst at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. who forecasts Sony will post an annual net loss of ¥33.2 billion. “Sony’s core operation continues to erode.”

George Boyd, a Tokyo-based spokesman for Sony, declined comment. The company is scheduled to report quarterly earnings on Feb. 6. Nintendo, which competes with Sony in game consoles, this month forecast a ¥35 billion operating loss, compared with its previous projection of a ¥100 billion profit.

Yasuo Nakane, an analyst at Deutsche Bank AG, cut his full-year estimate to ¥5.12 billion on Dec. 24 from ¥29 billion and said he expected Sony to announce further structural reforms next month. Atul Goyal of Jefferies LLC almost halved his projection to ¥18 billion from ¥35 billion on Jan. 15. Both analysts rate the stock hold.

Hideki Yasuda of Ace Research Institute reduced his profit forecast to ¥30 billion from ¥50 billion on Jan. 8.

Daniel Ernst, an analyst with New York-based Hudson Square Research Inc., downgraded Sony to hold in August after the company rejected activist investor Daniel Loeb’s push for a partial listing of its entertainment unit. He estimates the company will report ¥27.5 billion in profit.

“Our holiday research showed weak TV, camera and notebook sales,” Ernst said. “It will be very hard for Sony to show growth this year.”

The value of global TV shipments dropped 11 percent to $98.4 billion last year, the third consecutive annual decline, according to an estimate from Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Sony, Japan’s biggest TV maker, in October cut its sales outlook for Bravia models by 6.7 percent and said it expected to sell 14 million LCD sets instead of its previous projection for 15 million.

“Sony continues to struggle without an exit strategy from electronics,” Goyal wrote in a note Tuesday. “Electronics remains a bleeding Achilles’ heel.”

Sony may scrap its target to make the TV unit profitable this fiscal year after nine straight losses, Watanabe said. The analyst cut earnings estimates after lowering global demand assumptions for high-end electronic devices, he said.

Sony’s share of global TV sales fell to 7.5 percent in the third quarter last year from 8.1 percent the previous quarter, according to NPD DisplaySearch. Sony trails Samsung Electronics Co. and LG Electronics Inc.

“Sales won’t likely meet its target, and operating profit won’t likely meet its target,” said Koki Shiraishi, an analyst at SMBC Nikko Securities Inc. “The root of Sony’s trouble is growing deeper.”

Sony may cut its annual operating profit projection to ¥120 billion from its earlier projection of ¥170 billion, Shiraishi said. A lower forecast will probably be announced together with a reform plan that may include job cuts, the analyst said.

Analysts have avoided putting a sell recommendation on the stock. Of the 24 that follow the company, 10 recommend buying shares while 14 rate them a hold.

The company has already started selling assets to try to avoid a loss, said Shiraishi, citing Sony’s agreement last month to sell its Gracenote audio-recognition software business to Tribune Co. for $170 million. The analyst expects Sony to post a full year net profit close to zero.

PC shipments fell 10 percent in 2013, marking the worst-ever decline after lackluster holiday sales underscored how consumers and businesses are switching to tablets and smartphones, researchers Gartner Inc. and IDC said this month.

Sony in October cut its annual sales forecast for Vaio computers to 5.8 million units from 6.2 million and said the business needed fundamental reform.

Billionaire Daniel Loeb’s Third Point LLC, which pushed for a spinoff of a portion of Sony’s entertainment unit last year, said Tuesday in a letter to investors that Sony needs to restructure its TV and PC businesses.

“The Japan portfolio disappointed later in the year as Sony underperformed the broader market,” Loeb said. “Japanese investors reacted favorably to management teams who took bold restructuring action in 2013, and the market is looking for Sony to pursue a similar path.”

Sony’s Hollywood film studio began cutting jobs, including its head of technology, as the unit moves forward with $250 million in expense reductions pledged by Hirai, the company said in a statement Wednesday.

Reform for the PC unit may cause an additional loss and lower than anticipated results, said Eiichi Katayama at Bank of America Corp.’s Merrill Lynch. The investment bank projects worldwide shipment value of laptop computers to decline 3 percent in 2014, a third consecutive annual decline.

“Sony hasn’t made decisions to withdraw from any businesses,” Katayama said. “It’s going to be tough for Sony for the upcoming earnings season.”