(Corrects paragraph 10 to say that China would become Nissan’s biggest market again, rather than for the first time; corrects paragraph 12 to say Nissan’s operating profit in North America fell 30.5 percent, not 27.9 percent)
* CEO Saikawa: Alliance structure could take ‘different shapes’
* Saikawa: Structure must preserve autonomy of Nissan, Renault, MMC
* Nissan eyes 3rd year of profit fall on yen, tough U.S. mkt
By Naomi Tajitsu
TOKYO, May 14 (Reuters) - Nissan Motor announced the company and its automaking partner Renault SA were considering a range of options, including a more balanced equity structure, to ensure the existing alliance will survive beyond its current leadership.
Speculation about the alliance’s future, including a possible merger, has been brewing since Reuters reported earlier this year that the two companies were discussing plans for a closer tie-up in which Nissan could acquire the bulk of the French state’s 15 percent Renault holding.
The automaking partnership, which also includes Japan’s Mitsubishi Motors Corp, was the world’s top-selling passenger vehicle maker in 2017, but amid growing consolidation in the global auto industry, the group must find a way to strengthen its framework before alliance chairman Carlos Ghosn retires in the coming years, after overseeing the partnership for nearly 20 years.
“This could take many different shapes,” Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa told reporters on Monday at a results briefing, adding that a change in equity structure to create a more equal balance between the two companies was one of the options being studied.
“We need to ensure that the alliance can operate as it does now, preserving the autonomy of each company while maximising efficiencies, in its future generations.”
Nissan is forecasting a third straight year of lower operating profits on expectations a stronger yen and higher raw material prices would outweigh a rise in global vehicle sales to a record high.
Japan’s second-biggest automaker expects operating profit to ease 6 percent to 540 billion yen ($4.93 billion) in the year to March 2019, based on an assumption the yen will trade around 105 against the U.S. dollar during the year, from around 111 yen in the year just ended.
Currency swings will result in a 135 billion yen hit to annual operating profit, pushing profits to their lowest since the year ended March 2014 and underperforming analyst forecasts.
Operating profit fell 22.6 percent to 574.8 billion yen in the year ended March 2018, weighed by costs stemming from a domestic compliance scandal, weakness in North America, a key market, and higher materials costs.
Nissan expects a 2.7 percent rise in global sales to 5.93 million vehicles in the current year, its highest ever, as an 11.5 percent hike in sales in China outweighs a 2.7 percent drop in the United States and would see China become Nissan’s biggest market again.
Nissan has seen U.S. sales slide 6.5 percent so far in 2018, partly due to sluggish sales of its high-volume Altima sedan, a revamped model of which will be released later this year.
Price discounts for the Altima, the popular Rogue crossover SUV and other models were a big factor behind Nissan’s 30.5 percent drop in operating profit in North America in the year just ended.
The automaker has roughly doubled car sales in the region since 2010, in line with a target to corner around a 10 percent share of the U.S. vehicle market.
But achieving the target has come at the cost of hefty discounting in the region, and Nissan has said it now plans to focus on improving profitability in North America, while also expanding sales in China, the world’s biggest car market. ($1 = 109.5000 yen) (Reporting by Naomi Tajitsu; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Muralikumar Anantharaman)