Profits resurge at Japan's big three

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TOKYO — Profits at Japan’s big three automakers — Toyota, Nissan and Honda — all took an upward turn in the latest quarter as they rebounded from the pandemic slump.

Each company reported an increase in operating profit in the fiscal third quarter ended Dec. 31, and all three lifted their operating profit forecast for the full year that ends March 31.

Toyota Motor Corp. posted a quarterly increase in global sales and lifted its full fiscal-year sales forecast, despite a brewing global shortage of microchips.

Toyota CFO Kenta Kon shrugged off the microprocessor crunch, which is crashing vehicle assembly lines around the world, saying his company doesn’t foresee any immediate impact on automobile output but continues to monitor the risks.

“For the near term, we do not see any decrease in our production volume,” Kon said last week while announcing Toyota’s financial results.

Toyota expects the microchip shortage to mostly clear up before the summer, Kon said.

The automaker said its global sales climbed 6.9 percent to 2.4 million vehicles in the October-December period as demand bounced back after being hammered by global COVID-19 lockdowns and production shutdowns. With its late-year gains, Toyota eclipsed Volkswagen to become the world’s biggest automaker for calendar year 2020.

Looking ahead, Toyota lifted its retail sales forecast to 9.7 million vehicles for the fiscal year, from an earlier outlook of 9.4 million. The new target still represents a drop from the 10.5 million vehicles Toyota delivered in the previous fiscal year, but it underscored the company’s resilience.

Nissan Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co., by contrast, lowered their sales outlook, saying short supplies of automotive microprocessors would hamper output and deliveries going forward.

Nissan saw global sales decline 9.6 percent to 1.1 million vehicles in the latest quarter, and it cut its sales outlook by 150,000 to 4.0 million vehicles. That would be a 19 percent tumble from the 4.9 million vehicles Nissan sold during the previous fiscal year.

Nissan’s revision came after it reported a 19 percent increase in operating profit for the October-December period as cost control, better pricing power and lower incentives bolstered results.

Japan’s No. 2 automaker now expects an operating loss of ¥205.0 billion ($1.99 billion) in the year to March 31, as opposed to the negative ¥340.0 billion ($3.29 billion) that it forecast in November. The new target will still represent a record operating loss for the company.

But CEO Makoto Uchida said improved cost control and a better mix of retail volume and value pricing are gradually lifting Nissan’s profitability. In the first nine months of the current fiscal year, Nissan said revenue per vehicle is up 1.7 percent, the rental mix is down 6 points, inventory is down 25 percent and fixed costs are 12 percent lower.

A stream of new vehicles, such as the redesigned Rogue crossover in the U.S., is boosting Nissan’s brand and pricing power.

At Honda, global sales climbed 11 percent to 1.4 million in the latest quarter. But the company lowered its forecast by 100,000 to 4.5 million vehicles for the current fiscal year, citing the impact of the microchip shortage.

Honda’s new goal marks a 6.1 percent reduction from the year before. But Honda is now on track to supplant Nissan as Japan’s second-largest automaker.

Operating profit at Honda surged 67 percent in the fiscal third quarter ended Dec. 31, largely as a result of the sales increase, cost cutting and reductions in R&D outlays.

It is Toyota, however, that is setting the pace in Japan.

Toyota said rising sales fueled a 54 percent increase in operating profit to ¥987.9 billion ($9.57 billion) for the fiscal third quarter, with a whopping operating profit margin of 12.1 percent.

North America, Toyota’s traditional cash cow, underpinned the upswing, locking in a 13 percent sales increase to 753,000 vehicles in the three-month period.

Despite the uncertainties of another COVID-19 downturn and the looming chip shortage, Toyota lifted its operating profit forecast to ¥2.00 trillion ($19.37 billion), nearly double its earlier outlook. While the new result still represents a decline from the ¥2.40 trillion ($23.25 billion) booked in the previous year, the operating profit margin would register at a robust 7.5 percent.