Subaru puts brakes on rival Toyota in China

Automaker's presence in China profitable - for now

Fuji Heavy Industries President Yasuyuki Yoshinaga has become a market darling for something he failed to do: build a factory in China.

The maker of Subaru cars, the only major Japanese auto brand without a plant in the world's largest vehicle market, has jumped 83 per cent in Tokyo trading this year for the biggest gain on the Nikkei 225 Stock Average.

Fuji Heavy's smaller presence in China has helped shield it from a consumer backlash triggered by a territorial dispute between Asia's two largest economies as its sales in the US and Japan have surged.

"Selling cars in China is difficult now," Yoshinaga said at the unveiling of the new Forester SUV last week in Tokyo. "Luckily we can cover the loss there by producing more cars for Japan and the US, since we don't have a plant in China."

While its Japanese peers idled factories in China last month as deliveries slumped, Fuji Heavy was able to ship more cars to the US and Japan, where waiting times have stretched to six months for its BRZ sports car and two months for the Impreza hatchback.

The demand helped the Tokyo-based carmaker boost its full-year profit forecast by 40 per cent even as Honda and Nissan cut theirs by a fifth.

Last year, Fuji Heavy chief Yoshinaga said he felt his perseverance was being "tested" after failing to get approval for his company's proposed joint venture with Chery. Chinese authorities had balked because Toyota, which already has two joint ventures in China, is Fuji Heavy's largest shareholder, with a 16.5 per cent stake.

China didn't share Yoshinaga's view that Fuji Heavy is independently managed from Toyota. A third partnership in the country for Toyota would have exceeded regulatory limits, according to people familiar with the situation.

Manufacturing locally is crucial because import taxes of 25 per cent make cars built abroad uncompetitive. China is Subaru's third largest market after the US and Japan, but its growth in the country has slowed. The company sold 57,198 Subaru cars in China last year, versus 57,138 in 2010 and 35,348 in 2009. Nissan, which has a joint venture with Dongfeng, delivered 1.25 million vehicles in the country last year.

The delay in getting approval for its venture with Chery prompted Fuji Heavy in May to cut its projection for China deliveries by 44 per cent to 100,000 units for the year ending March 2016. It also lowered its global sales target by 50,000 to 850,000 units.

The China rejection was "disastrous for Subaru and we had a very negative view at the time," said Masatoshi Nishimoto, an analyst with IHS Automotive in Tokyo. "Their misfortune turned into a stroke of good luck after the anti-Japan protests. But in the long term, Subaru can't do without China."

Fuji Heavy's Chief Financial Officer, Mitsuru Takahashi, agrees.

"We just happened to be lucky," Takahashi said in a November 13 interview.

"By chance we have been moving in an advantageous direction." Fuji Heavy shares have gained 28 per cent since Sept. 14, when anti-Japan protests broke out in China, outperforming Toyota, Nissan and Honda. Researchers at Toyota estimate Japanese automakers are unlikely to fully restore Chinese production before July, according to a document obtained by Bloomberg News this month.

The decades-old territorial dispute, involving a group of islands called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, was reignited in April when then-Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, a long-time critic of China, proposed buying the territories. Though anti-Japan protests have subsided in China, tensions continue to simmer.

Japan's main opposition leader, Shinzo Abe, said on November 15 he will boost control of the islands should his Liberal Democratic Party win next month's elections. Polls show the LDP may win the national vote.

Fuji Heavy may need to be more aggressive in expanding its manufacturing capacity in North America to capitalise on the growing demand for its vehicles, said Takeshi Miyao, an analyst at market researcher Carnorama Japan.

By 2014, the automaker plans to boost capacity at its plant in Lafayette, Indiana, by 11 per cent to 300,000 cars annually and is considering further expansion in the US. Fuji Heavy may sell 400,000 vehicles in the US in fiscal 2015, exceeding an earlier forecast for 380,000, Takeshi Tachimori, chief of Fuji Heavy's US unit, said in June.

In Japan, the company has said it will increase production at its main domestic plant in Gunma Prefecture by 20 per cent to 180,000 vehicles by the summer of 2013. Government subsidies helped boost domestic sales by 30 per cent to 47,528 vehicles for the six months ended September, led by the Legacy and Impreza, according to the company.

Despite investors rewarding Fuji Heavy for its minnow status in China, Fuji Heavy chief Yoshinaga says the country's potential is just too big to ignore.

"China is the largest vehicle market in the world and will continue to grow," Yoshinaga said last month. "When we consider local production, besides the US, China is the place. This plan hasn't changed."

- NZ Herald

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