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Japanese automakers' fortunes tied to North American presence

TOKYO -- Japanese automakers doing well in North America booked record net profits in the April-June quarter while others reliant on markets elsewhere saw profit declines, their earnings releases show.

     All seven major automakers announced quarterly results by Tuesday. Toyota Motor, Nissan Motor and Fuji Heavy Industries -- the company behind the Subaru brand -- achieved those profit records on brisk North American sales and the weak yen. But Suzuki Motor and Mitsubishi Motors, focused on the domestic and Southeast Asian markets, saw decreases, as did Mazda Motor, strong in Europe.

     The combined net profit of these six plus Honda Motor rose 14% on the year to around 1.16 trillion yen ($9.27 billion), a record for the quarter. Honda's profit climbed 20% based on the international accounting standards it adopted from this fiscal year.

     New-auto sales in the U.S. this year are seen reaching 17 million for the first time in 14 years, propelled by robust consumer spending and cheap gasoline. The popularity of high-margin models like the Toyota Highlander sport utility vehicle contributed to strong earnings from North America. Fuji Heavy saw profit soar 61%.

     Local rivals such as Ford Motor enjoyed heavy demand, too, but Japanese automakers had the bonus of a weak yen. The seven companies got a combined 340 billion yen profit boost in the quarter from the Japanese currency trading nearly 20 yen weaker per dollar than a year earlier. The yen stiffened against some emerging market currencies, which eroded profit, but overall changes in foreign exchange rates helped the companies by roughly 240 billion yen. The five automakers excluding Honda and Nissan had logged record net profits a year earlier.

     Mazda fared well in its core operations, but net profit fell 25% due partly to the euro's decline against the yen, which lowered operating profit by nearly 5 billion yen. Higher tax obligations also weighed on earnings.

     Suzuki and Mitsubishi Motors struggled in their mainstay operations, with net profits down 16% and 15%, respectively. Suzuki took a big hit from the April increase to the minicar ownership tax. Having retreated from North American markets, it could not tap demand there.

     Mitsubishi, with a minor presence in North America, saw a 25% increase in unit sales there. But performance was lackluster in its key markets of Southeast Asia including Thailand.

     For the full year through March, all seven companies maintained their earlier profit projections. If the yen remains weak, they could upgrade forecasts later.

(Nikkei)

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