October 9, 2019 / 4:07 AM / 7 days ago

Japan's Fast Retailing likely hit by South Korea boycott; succession plans in focus: analysts

TOKYO (Reuters) - A South Korean boycott of Japanese goods is seen dragging down sales at Fast Retailing Co Ltd’s (9983.T) Uniqlo stores, denting otherwise strong financial results due to be announced on Thursday by Asia’s biggest fashion group, analysts said.

FILE PHOTO: A Uniqlo store is seen on 5th Ave in New York, New York, U.S., March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

But another focus will be on succession plans after founder Tadashi Yanai, Japan’s richest person according to Forbes, turned 70 earlier this year.

Analysts on average expect operating profit of 258.6 billion yen ($2.41 billion) for the year ended August, up 9.5% from a year prior, Thomson Reuters data showed. They see a 14% rise in the current year, helped by strength in China and new markets.

Some have been marking down forecasts since Uniqlo and other Japanese businesses were targeted by South Korean boycotts amid a diplomatic spat - a reminder of risks that come with overseas expansion. The company opened its first store in India last week and is also expanding in markets such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

Sales in South Korea, which account for around 8% of sales in Fast Retailing’s flagship Uniqlo business, fell 40% year-on-year in July and more in August, the Nikkei reported.

J.P. Morgan analyst Dairo Murata recently lowered his Fast Retailing earnings forecast for the current year by 4.6% and cut his price target on the shares to 68,000 yen from 70,000 yen.

The shares last traded at around 61,300 yen, up 15% in the year to date.

“We foresee a double-digit decline in sales and a roughly 40% fall in operating profit for the South Korea business,” Murata said in a client note, adding that the yen’s appreciation against China’s yuan was another near-term negative factor.

Fast Retailing’s biggest growth market in recent years has been China, where it opened its first Uniqlo store in 2002 and now has over 700 locations. The company has said it expects Greater China revenue to grow to 1 trillion yen in fiscal 2022.

The Japan market, by contrast, has shown little growth. Uniqlo’s September same-store sales data showed a 4.2% decline from a year earlier, with analysts saying they had expected stronger sales ahead of a consumption tax hike this month.

SUCCESSION

Another key focus on Thursday will be succession planning. Previously, Yanai said he would retire at 65 but shelved such plans when the time approached.

He has said he does not want his two sons to take the top job, though both were promoted to the ranks of company directors last year.

The next leader will be tasked not only with maintaining growth in China but also addressing long-term problems, such as its struggle to establish its brand in the United States. Investors are also keen for more results from recent technology investments including automated checkout and state-of-the-art logistics systems.

Possible successors include finance chief Takeshi Okazaki, who joined Fast Retailing from McKinsey & Co in 2011, and Pan Ning, head of Uniqlo’s China operations.

Maki Akaida, head of Uniqlo’s Japan operations, is also considered a candidate after Bloomberg News reported Yanai as preferring a female leader.

Reporting by Ritsuko Ando; Editing by Christopher Cushing

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