TOKYO Toyota Motor Corp forecast a larger-than-expected 35 percent fall in annual profit on Friday and warned that the strong yen was making it difficult to justify keeping production in Japan.
Toyota has struggled to restore output after a massive 9.0 earthquake in March rocked northeastern Japan and forced automakers to slash output. The ensuing nuclear disaster and power shortages have compounded their woes.
The production disruption will likely see Toyota lose its title as the world's largest automaker this year.
"This is probably another conservative estimate from Toyota, but it's predicting a loss in the fiscal first half so we can tell how serious the damage from the earthquake was," said Koichi Ogawa, chief portfolio manager at Daiwa SB Investments in Tokyo, adding that shares in the company may fall on Monday.
Toyota reiterated its plan to restore output to pre-quake levels by November, helped by a recovery in the supply chain for key parts, and expressed confidence it could claw back market share lost as a result of the quake.
In an encouraging sign for automakers, chipmaker Renesas Electronics Corp said on Friday it now expected to restore supply capacity lost due to quake damage by the end of September, one month earlier than previously planned.
Renesas, the world's biggest maker of microcontrollers, had become one of the biggest bottlenecks in the automotive supply chain that forced car firms to curb production.
"Once our product supply is back to normal, we can compete with no problem. We have the resources and are fully charged," Toyota Chief Financial Officer Satoshi Ozawa said at a briefing in Tokyo.
But Ozawa warned that Toyota was getting hammered by the strong yen and called on the Japanese government to take action to rein it in.
The Japanese currency hit a one-month high against the dollar this week and is now about 5 yen stronger than the 85 per dollar level that Toyota sees as the break-even point for profiting on production in Japan.
Toyota said it expects operating profit to fall 35 percent to 300 billion yen ($3.7 billion) in the financial year to March 2012, well short of the consensus for a 434 billion yen profit in a poll of 23 forecasts by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
The forecast, which the company would have announced in May along with its annual results if not for the earthquake, incorporates a 100 billion yen negative impact from the strong yen.
"Structural weakness remains for Toyota, as it has a higher portion of domestic production than Honda and Nissan, which makes it vulnerable to the yen's strength," said Park Sang-Won, an analyst at Eugene Investment & Securities in Seoul.
Toyota forecast global sales would fall 1 percent to 7.24 million vehicles in the year to March. The figures include sales at truck maker Hino Motors Ltd and compact car maker Daihatsu Motor Co.
The drop is expected to place Toyota behind General Motors and possibly Volkswagen AG in the global vehicle sales rankings this year, and reflects a loss of share to smaller rivals such as South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co, which has been nipping at its heels for years.
Toyota played down the possibility.
"We don't see it as necessary to be the largest automaker in the world," Ozawa said. "The most important thing is creating a stable business base."
Toyota said on Friday it expects the dollar to average 82 yen in the current financial year to next March 31, against an average currency rate of 86 yen per dollar last year.
The yen's persistent strength has raised questions about the rationale of Toyota's commitment to producing at least 3 million cars in Japan each year.
Ozawa said it was possible that Toyota President Akio Toyoda was rethinking his position.
"We are in a situation where it's becoming impossible for Japan's manufacturing industry to do business," Ozawa said.
"Our president has been saying that he would never want to see Japan's manufacturing fading from view, but he also said recently that he was unable to respond when someone made the comment that Toyota's production should not be handled only in Japan."
Toyota's shares have fallen 7.5 percent since the disaster, underperforming the benchmark Nikkei 225 average, which has lost 6.5 percent. Its shares on Friday rose 0.9 percent to close at 3,300 yen before the company released the profit forecast.
(Editing by Matt Driskill and Edmund Klamann)