TOKYO Japanese carmaker Toyota Motor (7203.T) forecast a 20 percent jump in 2012 sales to a record 8.48 million vehicles, as it recovers from output losses caused by natural disasters in Japan and Thailand this year.
Toyota, the world's top carmaker since 2008, is set to lose its crown to U.S. rival General Motors (GM.N) after supply-chain disruptions from the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan and flooding in Thailand hit production around the world.
With estimated sales this year of 7.90 million vehicles for the group, which includes units Daihatsu Motor 7262.T and Hino Motors (7205.T), Toyota will likely rank third behind General Motors and German group Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE).
Toyota could regain the top spot next year as it builds inventory to meet pent-up demand and adds output capacity in Brazil and China, among other countries.
GM and VW have not disclosed 2012 sales plans, and Toyota did not provide group forecasts.
"The reason they lost sales this year was because they could not build the cars. Now that they can, it is possible they will take back the top spot," said Satoru Takada, analyst at Tokyo-based T.I.W.
"It depends on which markets the growth will come from," he said, noting while Toyota was dominant in southeast Asia and the Middle East, it had more competition in China and South America.
Separately on Thursday, Moody's said it may cut Toyota's ratings because of "the likelihood that the recovery in Toyota's profitability will be more protracted than anticipated due to the company's significant exposure to the strong yen.
"This foreign-exchange pressure is compounded by eroding macro-economic conditions in certain core markets, and Toyota's weaker competitive position following product quality issues."
Toyota's parent-only plan for 2012 compared with its previous peak of 8.43 million vehicles in 2007.
"I believe the target is achievable given Toyota is quickly recovering production and launching new models," said Lee Hyun-soo, an analyst at Kiwoom Securities in Seoul.
"There will be cut-throat competition between Toyota, GM and Volkswagen for the top spot in the global market next year."
VW is also eyeing the top global ranking, with a sales goal of 10 million vehicles in 2018. The group logged 7.51 million deliveries for the first 11 months of this year, after a 15 percent gain in November. "Our target to top an annual 8 million units for the first time is within reach," sales chief Christian Klingler said on December 16.
Consulting firm IHS Automotive predicted Toyota will leapfrog VW next year with a 15 percent sales gain to 8.42 million vehicles. LMC, known until recently as J.D. Power Forecasting, sees Toyota narrowing the gap but remaining behind.
Toyota president Akio Toyoda has said he was not interested in a race to be the biggest automaker. Measured by stock value, Toyota is way above its rivals, at $111 billion -- more than GM and VW combined.
At its peak in 2007, Toyota was valued at more than twice that, and analysts said a sales recovery would struggle to translate into similar profit gains at today's exchange rates.
"Rather than an increase in its production plans, the market is focusing on how (Toyota) will limit the losses with the dollar at 77-78 yen," said Yoshihiko Tabei, chief analyst at Kazaka Securities. "Even if they increase production, there are questions about how much that will lift profits."
Toyota's shares have fallen 22 percent this year and are down 70 percent from a peak in early 2007, when the dollar fetched around 120 yen. On Thursday, they fell 0.6 percent in a 0.4 percent lower Tokyo market .N225.
Once the envy of the auto industry, Toyota has had a torrid couple of years -- from a quality crisis that triggered the recall of more than 10 million vehicles globally, a tarnished image and a subsequent slide in sales.
Just as it was recovering from that the March 11 quake and tsunami that destroyed hundreds of kilometers of Japan's northeastern coastline forced it and other domestic automakers to scale back output for months.
In October, damage to suppliers from Thailand's floods did the same, hampering plans to make up for earlier output losses.
Production disrupted by the Thai floods has mostly returned to normal, only keeping output in Japan and Thailand reduced.
EMERGING MARKET LAGGARD
Toyota has also lagged because of a relatively slow push into emerging markets as it scrambled to meet runaway demand in mature markets, such as North America in the years leading up to the global financial crisis.
Toyota now aims to sell half its cars in emerging markets by 2015, up from around 40 percent. "The numerical plans announced today reflect that strategy," said spokeswoman Amiko Tomita.
With growth in developing markets such as China and India slowing and Europe in the middle of a debt crisis, some said Toyota's plans may be optimistic.
"With these factors in mind, I think some investors are somewhat skeptical that they will reach these numbers," said Fujio Ando, a senior analyst at Chibagin Asset Management. "There might be a slight gap between the company's numbers and what investors expect," he said.
Toyota also announced plans to sell 8.95 million Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles worldwide in 2013 and build 8.98 million vehicles. It gave no regional breakdown for forecasts outside Japan. It plans to build 3.40 million vehicles and sell 1.53 million vehicles at home in 2012.
(Additional reporting by Mari Saito and James Topham in Tokyo, Hyunjoo Jin in Seoul, and Laurence Frost in Paris; Editing by Joseph Radford and Matt Driskill)