Toyota likely to return to black despite recall crisis

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TOKYO: Toyota is expected to announce that it swung back to a profit in the past fiscal year when it releases its earnings results Tuesday, despite being hit by a global safety recall crisis.

A return to the black would be much needed good news for the car giant which has pulled nearly 10 million vehicles and faces a host of lawsuits over faulty gas pedals that have been blamed for 58 deaths in the United States.

Toyota’s earnings results will come a day after US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood meets Toyota executives at the company’s headquarters in Japan.

A joint press conference was scheduled for 0630 GMT Monday.

The Yomiuri daily reported Toyota will post an operating profit of up to 100 billion yen ($1.09 billion) for the fiscal year to March and that recall related costs will be less than its forecast of some 180 billion yen.

"The market consensus is that Toyota will return to the black, as demand has picked up and production has restarted," said SMBC Friend Research Center auto analyst Shigeru Matsumura.

The Nikkei business daily estimated an operating profit figure of 50 billion yen.

A spokeswoman for the world’s biggest carmaker declined to comment.

Analysts widely attribute the reversal to a broad recovery in global
demand, driven by government incentives in several countries including Japan.

Toyota has also pursued aggressive cost cuts to improve its bottom line.

While the full impact of the recall crisis will not be reflected until the next annual earnings result, there are hopes that the carmaker is turning the corner after fears its reputation was terminally harmed.

"I think we can be optimistic for now," said Mitsushige Akino, who oversees Tokyo-based fund Ichiyoshi Investment Management.

"Although Toyota remains at rock-bottom, I don’t think it’s in a crisis in the real sense of the word that its business crumbled or that its sales tanked from bad brand image. Its recovery was faster than expected," he added.

Toyota last year sank into the red for the first time ever, losing $4.4 billion as car sales collapsed due to the global downturn, and posted an annual operating loss of 461 billion yen.

Its once-stellar reputation for safety and reliability was hammered when it began a string of recalls late last year, mostly for problems with sticky acceleration pedals and brake failures in its flagship Prius hybrids.

Last month the company agreed to pay a $16.4-million fine, the largest ever by an automaker in the United States, for hiding the deadly accelerator pedal defects for at least four months.

Toyota has also been hit with at least 97 lawsuits seeking damages for injury or death linked to sudden acceleration and 138 class action lawsuits from customers suing to recoup losses in the resale value of vehicles.

The recall crisis triggered a ratings downgrade by Moody’s over concerns that product quality issues and the cost of litigation will dent Toyota’s future profitability.

Company head Akio Toyoda visited the United States in February when he tearfully apologized for the safety woes and pledged to overhaul quality control measures, including requiring executives to do test-drives.

On Tuesday, investors will scrutinize the company’s strategy in the United States, its biggest market and the most affected by the recalls.

Year-on-year sales in the US rose 24.4 percent in April, mainly boosted by incentives such as zero-percent financing and low lease rates.

But some analysts warned that the momentum may recede once the incentives are lifted and as rivals such as General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and Hyundai offer sweet deals to lure away potential Toyota customers.

"Once the incentives are gone, there may be a backlash. The rest depends on how the US economy recovers," said SMBC Friend Research Center auto analyst Shigeru Matsumura.

"The real nature of demand for Toyota is unclear until the incentives die out. Only then will we know the extent of consumer confidence towards the company," he added.

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