April 25, 2016 / 2:47 PM / a year ago

If Mitsubishi Motors needs help, group firms may look away

A man walks out from Mitsubishi Motors Corp's showroom at its headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, April 21, 2016. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

TOKYO (Reuters) - A decade ago, Japanese automaker Mitsubishi Motors (7211.T) survived a defect cover-up scandal through a bail-out by other Mitsubishi Group companies. Now, facing uncertainty and potential liabilities from a new scandal, it may be on its own.

Multiple senior officials at Mitsubishi companies said it would be “difficult” for them to help the car maker as they face their own financial squeeze, as well as calls to put shareholder returns above ties with the former Mitsubishi business empire, or “zaibatsu”, which was split up into independent companies after the Second World War.

A task force at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, the banking arm of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (8306.T) - which persuaded other group firms to rescue Mitsubishi Motors in 2004 - has reconvened in recent days to weigh the possible fallout of the automaker’s fuel economy cheating scandal, said a person with direct knowledge of the matter.

The person said other Mitsubishi Group firms seemed reluctant to help, but stressed that Mitsubishi Motors has made no approach for assistance as it doesn’t yet know the extent of potential compensation costs and losses in sales and production.

“At the moment, our priority is to cooperate with and disclose the results of ongoing investigations, and we’re not in a position to comment on assistance,” a spokeswoman for Mitsubishi Motors told Reuters.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (7011.T) and Mitsubishi Corp (8058.T), which hold stakes in the car maker and have sales partnerships with it, would want to avoid its collapse, but have shown little interest in helping, the person said.

“If other automakers could absorb it or merge with it, that would be better,” said the person, who didn’t want to be named as he is not authorized to speak with the media.

Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ and Mitsubishi UFJ Trust and Banking Corp also hold smaller shares in Japan’s sixth-largest automaker.

“The investigation into Mitsubishi Motors over its falsified fuel economy data is ongoing, so at this point we cannot decide on whether to offer assistance,” said Shunichi Miyanaga, president and CEO of Mitsubishi Heavy, a builder of military aircraft, rail infrastructure and luxury cruise ships. It is the biggest shareholder in Mitsubishi Motors with a 12.6 percent stake, and Miyanaga sits on the automaker’s board.

CASH RESERVES

Mitsubishi Motors may face a bill of as much as 104 billion yen ($935.2 million), according to Nomura analyst Masataka Kunugimoto, to compensate drivers, pay back government tax rebates and other payments - assuming a cost of 68,000-166,000 yen ($611-$1,493) per car, times the 625,000 cars affected.

Goldman Sachs estimates a potential cost of up to 200,000 yen per car.

Those numbers could escalate if the scandal widens to cars sold overseas - Mitsubishi sells only around a tenth of its cars in Japan - and if sales are hit by the adverse branding from it manipulating fuel economy test data.

On the plus side, Mitsubishi Motors had more than 480 billion yen ($4.32 billion) in cash at end-2015, and much lower gearing than rivals Mazda Motor (7261.T) and Isuzu Motors 7202.T.

Mitsubishi Heavy cut its annual net profit forecast on Monday to 66 billion yen from an earlier 90 billion yen forecast, and around half of last year’s profit, as its cruise ship business grappled with rising costs and construction delays. An executive familiar with the situation at Mitsubishi Heavy said newly adopted corporate governance guidelines meant it and other listed Mitsubishi Group companies were wary of doing anything that could cost their own shareholders.

“Even 10 years ago, the Mitsubishi Heavy shareholder meeting turned disorderly with shareholders opposed to the Mitsubishi Motors bailout. Now, the thinking around governance has evolved even more,” the executive said. “Talking about a bailout invites questions about judgment.”

Trading group Mitsubishi Corp warned last month of a first annual loss since it was established in 1954, due to writedowns from plunging commodities prices. Yet it is keeping its annual dividend forecast amid pressure for higher shareholder returns. Its president is halving his pay, and all other executives have had their bonuses scrapped.

Shares in Mitsubishi Motors have slumped 45 percent since news of its test cheating broke last Wednesday.

Reporting by Maki Shiraki and Taro Fuse, with additional reporting by Naomi Tajitsu; Writing by Ritsuko Ando; Editing by Ian Geoghegan

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