TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s Panasonic Corp warned of a record annual $10.2 billion net loss, joining beleaguered rivals Sony and Sharp in a sea of red ink as they struggle to fix their broken TV businesses and show they have not lost their way.
Panasonic’s forecast loss of 780 billion yen ($10.2 billion) for the year to March dwarfed expectations, and is almost all due to restructuring charges and writedowns for its Sanyo Electric unit.
At a press briefing in Tokyo on Friday, Panasonic President Fumio Ohtsubo apologized for the unprecedented loss. “I feel the responsibility for the huge amount,” he said.
He gave no sign, however, that he would step aside to let someone else try to revamp the sprawling consumer electronics giant, as Sony’s boss Howard Stringer has done.
Sony on Thursday pressed its reset button after warning of a bigger-than-expected annual loss, announcing that Kazuo Hirai will take over from Stringer as CEO in April, triggering an 8 percent jump in its share price on Friday, its biggest one-day percentage gain in almost a year.
“We will accelerate our profit structure reform and make sure we achieve a V-shaped performance improvement in the next business year,” Ohtsubo told reporters instead.
Together, Panasonic, Sony and Sharp Corp expect to lose $17 billion this year, highlighting the savaging of Japan’s electronics industry by foreign rivals led by South Korea’s Samsung Electronics, weak demand and a strong yen.
With TVs becoming smart - linked to other devices like tablets and smartphones - an inability by Panasonic to win in the TV market risks hobbling sales across their wider consumer electronics line-up.
Panasonic trimmed its forecast for the number of flat-screen TVs it will sell by 1 million to 18 million sets.
“They don’t seem like a company that’s progressing towards a particular goal,” said Yuuki Sakurai, CEO and president of Fukoku Capital, which managed assets worth $7.6 billion as of last March.
“What exactly is this company good at? What does it want to do? They don’t have answers to these questions.”
Panasonic, which is in the process of shedding 17,000 jobs by end-March, also missed third-quarter market forecasts, diving to a loss of 197.6 billion yen from a profit a year earlier, much of the damage coming from the TV business.
Ohtsubo dismissed any suggestion he will ditch the TV business.
“I don’t think it’s a business that has lost its growth potential,” he said. Panasonic, he explained, wanted to “develop TV in a different manner” by exploring growth in sales to businesses, such as high-quality monitors for hospitals, rather than direct to more fickle retail consumers.
Yet, even with expansion into niche markets, the living-room market still dominates and the near-term outlook for TV sales is grim.
By 2015, annual global sales of liquid crystal TVs will contract by 8 percent to $92 billion, forecasts flat panel industry research company DisplaySearch. Worse still, plasma sets, a market that Panasonic dominates, will shrink 38 percent to $7 billion.
If Panasonic’s market share “keeps shrinking by 10 percent or so, they may need to prepare some more restructuring,” said Shiro Mikoshiba, analyst at Nomura Holdings in Tokyo.
Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the debt ratings of Panasonic and Sony last month and retained a negative outlook for both, citing their continued TV losses.
It’s not only TVs, though, that pose a risk to profits and are keeping investors away from Panasonic shares, say analysts.
Panasonic shares initially fell on Friday, extending a slide to their lowest in more than 30 years, but later rallied to close 1.2 percent higher ahead of the quarterly results, likely helped in part by the jump in Sony shares.
Punching a big hole in Panasonic’s finances, and adding to 514 billion yen in restructuring costs, is a 250 billion yen goodwill writedown from the 2009 acquisition of rival Sanyo, bought as part of a strategy to focus more on business-to-business markets such as auto components and green technologies.
If that business performs poorly, analysts say there could be a need for a bigger write-off.
“On its balance sheet, Sanyo’s goodwill comes to 900 billion yen. That’s really, really big and we know the situation of the battery business is really, really terrible,” Nomura’s Mikoshiba said before the earnings release.
“Panasonic’s previous record net loss in 2001/02 was because of the impact of a sudden slump in PCs after the IT bubble burst, but there was hope then for growth in flat-screen TVs,” said Hideyuki Suzuki, general manager for investment research at SBI Securities.
“This time, and not just for Panasonic, it doesn’t feel like they’ve got rid of all the rot.”
Ohtsubo said he had no regrets over buying Sanyo. The acquisition, he insisted, “provided clarity about the future course of Panasonic.”
“One silver lining is that there is investment being made for the future,” said Hiroyuki Fukunaga, CEO of Investrust.
“You could take the added restructuring costs as a serious move by the company to reform and improve its business. You could look at this as the bottom, to show all the losses and then move aggressively towards the next quarter,” he said.
Panasonic does expect to make an operating profit - which excludes one off items such as restructuring charges - though this is now seen at just 30 billion yen, down from a previous 130 billion yen. Last year, Panasonic logged an operating profit of 305 billion yen.
Ohtsubo took up much of his earnings presentation talking about the company’s most profitable parts: its refrigerators, washing machines and other household appliances, which increased quarterly operating profit by more than 8 percent to 26 billion yen, with an operating margin of 8 percent.
Next year, Ohtsubo promised more products to attract global consumers. The firm already sells a wide range of items from shavers, massage chairs and the more traditional kitchen appliances to bicycle pumps, fax machines, light bulbs, nose hair trimmers and lighted toilet seats.
(Corrects final paragraph to show Panasonic’s existing range includes the items listed, not that Ohtsubo plans to launch them in the coming year)
Additional reporting by Taiga Uranaka, Daiki Iga and Yoko Kubota; Editing by Mark Bendeich, Edmund Klamann and Ian Geoghegan