Toyota's First Operating Loss Since 1938 Spells Trouble for Japanese Economy

By Don Miller
Contributing Writer
Money Morning

Joining a chorus of ailing U.S. automakers, Toyota Motor Co. (TM) yesterday (Monday) forecast its first operating loss in 71 years on plummeting demand and sharp appreciation of the Japanese yen. The announcement prompted Moody’s Investors Service to consider downgrading the company’s top-rated credit.

But the news may have bigger implications for Japan’s entire economy, as the country’s exports continue to take a beating from sagging worldwide demand for its products. 

Japanese exports plunged 26.7% in November from a year ago. Shipments to the U.S. slid an unprecedented 34%, Japan’s Finance Ministry said. A strong yen, which makes Japanese goods more expensive, combined with deflated consumer spending, is hammering Japanese exporters.

Toyota will post a $1.7 billion (150 billion yen) loss in the year through March, it said in a statement, scrapping a previous forecast of a $6.6 billion. The last time Toyota posted an operating loss was in the year ended March 1938, spokesman Hideaki Homma told Bloomberg News.

“The environment we’re in is extremely tough,” President Katsuaki Watanabe told reporters in Nagoya. “We’re facing an unprecedented emergency situation. Unfortunately, we can’t see the bottom.”

U.S. auto sales are down 16% this year, led by declines of 28% for Chrysler LLC, 22% for General Motors Corp. (GM) and 19% for Ford Motor Co. (F), Bloomberg News reported. The three U.S. automakers will close about 59 factories over the next month as they struggle to avoid bankruptcy.

"It is difficult to envision any swift recovery from the present damage in the U.S., Toyota's core market, and we anticipate increasing cuts in overseas local production," wrote Barclays Capital (BCS) analyst Tsuyoshi Mochimaru in a research note on Dec. 19, according to MarketWatch.

Compounding the demand problem is a surging yen, which erodes overseas profits for Japanese exporters. The yen has gained 25% against the dollar this year.

But Toyota’s problems may just be the tip of the iceberg for Japan’s economy. The November export plunge was the biggest drop on record, as global demand for cars and electronics collapsed.   

Earlier this month, Sony Corp. (ADR: SNE) announced it was cutting 8,000 jobs, or about 4% of its worldwide workforce. Sony recently blamed a 72% profit plunge in the third quarter partially on a resurgent yen. Electronics company Sanyo Electric Co. (OTC: SANYY), facing tough market conditions around the globe, agreed Friday to sell itself to rival Panasonic Corp. (PC).

“Japan’s economy has never weaned itself off of the overbearing reliance on exports, and especially to the U.S.,” said Kirby Daley, senior strategist and head of capital introductions at Newedge Group. “Japan did nothing to prepare itself” for the collapse in demand from abroad, he told Bloomberg News.

Like the U.S. Federal Reserve, The Bank of Japan has been hacking away at interest rates in an attempt to stanch the economic bleeding. Japan's central bank lowered rates to 0.1% on Friday.  But the rate cuts haven’t been enough to kickstart the Japanese economy, as the yen has remained stubbornly strong.

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