Business / Corporate | ANALYSIS

Mitsubishi scandal could push firm to brink again, requiring rescue by group

by Ma Jie, Yuki Hagiwara and Craig Trudell

Bloomberg

Mitsubishi Motors Corp.’s disclosure that it manipulated fuel economy tests risks putting the carmaker back in a familiar position: needing help from Mitsubishi group companies to stay in business.

President Tetsuro Aikawa bowed in apology Wednesday before telling reporters the fuel efficiency of 625,000 minicars had been exaggerated by as much as 10 percent. The firm’s shares were set to fall by the 20 percent daily limit Thursday in Tokyo trading after plunging 15 percent Wednesday, the biggest decline in more than a decade.

A bigger issue may lie in store: Mitsubishi Motors has been testing cars using a method not compliant with Japanese standards since 2002, according to Aikawa. While the company said it is unclear whether the flawed method enhanced or reduced fuel economy, further revelations that ratings have been exaggerated may overwhelm the carmaker, which has the lowest level of cash among its Japanese peers. The company required two rounds of bailouts more than a decade ago from Mitsubishi group companies to survive a scandal involving a cover-up of deadly defects.

“Since the cover-up of recalls in the 2000s, we have tried to reinforce compliance within the company, but a compliance sense still hasn’t penetrated to every employee,” Aikawa said Wednesday. “I deeply understand how difficult it is to strengthen compliance, and I think this is a very shameful issue.”

The transport ministry inspected the company’s plant and technical center in Aichi Prefecture on Thursday. Of the affected minicars produced in the past three years, three-quarters were supplied to Nissan Motor Co. In testing for their fuel efficiency, Mitsubishi Motors undervalued how much air and tire resistance the cars would encounter out on the road.

The deliberate use of biased data led to fuel efficiency being overstated for the Mitsubishi eK Wagon and eK Space, which are also sold by Nissan as the Dayz and Dayz Roox. The mishandling of the test data was intentional, Aikawa said.

The violation could result in Mitsubishi Motors having to pay back government tax rebates its minicars should not have been eligible for, said Ryugo Nakao, an executive vice president. The company is checking whether its improper conduct affects overseas models and said it is unable to estimate the impact on its business at this point.

Mitsubishi Motors may need to consider selling noncore assets or increasing capital, Koichi Sugimoto, a Tokyo-based analyst at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley, wrote in a report. The earnings impact is likely to be substantial as the company may need to compensate its customers and Nissan, as well as face lawsuits and government penalties, Sugimoto said.

The maker of Lancer cars and Outlander SUVs has been seeking to restore confidence in its vehicles after a series of scandals more than 10 years ago led it to seek multiple bailouts from Mitsubishi group companies. Mitsubishi Motors had covered up defects involving flawed axles that could lead wheels to detach.

“It’s not the first time for Mitsubishi to have this kind of (issue) and this definitely won’t help them rebuild their reputation,” said Seiji Sugiura, an analyst at Tokai Tokyo Research Center. “Investors are shocked. Those who didn’t take action today may rush to sell tomorrow.”

Mitsubishi Motors reported having ¥484.7 billion in cash and equivalents as of the end of December, the least among the nation’s major automakers and about one-tenth the cash pile on Toyota Motor Corp.’s balance sheet.

The company’s meager financial resources leave it stretched thin for research and development. Mitsubishi Motors forecast spending ¥82 billion for the fiscal year that ended in March. By contrast, Toyota would have had to spend about ¥88 billion on average per month to meet its annual projection.

It is unclear whether the Mitsubishi Motors data manipulation will compromise its minicar alliance with Nissan, which discovered the discrepancy. Nissan voluntarily suspended sales of the Dayz and Dayz Roox models Wednesday until Mitsubishi Motors provided further clarification, said Jonathan Adashek, a Nissan spokesman.

The episode deals another blow to an industry already dealing with reputation damage. Volkswagen AG admitted last year to rigging diesel models with software to meet U.S. emissions standards. Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp. agreed to pay fines and forfeit emissions credits in late 2014 to settle U.S. claims they overstated mileage ratings. Ford Motor Co. also lowered ratings for hybrid models in 2014 and 2013.

The scandal also draws parallels to another crisis engulfing a Japanese auto company at the center of the industry’s largest safety recall: troubled parts supplier Takata Corp. The company has admitted to manipulating air-bag inflator test data, prompting a rebuke from its biggest customer, Honda Motor Co.

Takata is now seeking sponsors that would replenish its capital and allow it to emerge as a new company, a person familiar with the matter said this month.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5