By Yoko Kubota
YOKOHAMA, Japan (Reuters) - Nissan Motor Co <7201.T> will prioritize boosting profit margins over market share, its CEO said on Monday, signaling a shift in emphasis after the Japanese automaker forecast the lowest operating margin among its peers for this financial year.
Profitability at Japan's second-biggest carmaker has been squeezed by the cost of a rapid expansion drive aimed at lifting its global market share to 8 percent by 2016-17, compared with 6.2 percent in the year ended March.
However, chief executive Carlos Ghosn indicated on Monday the push for sales growth had nudged down the list of priorities as the company also tries to lift its operating margin to 8 percent by 2016-17.
"We obviously can't reach 8 percent operating margin without growing, but at the same time we don't want the growth to be in contradiction with the profit goal," he told a news conference.
"I think the most important is the 8 percent operating margin."
Ghosn said Nissan had yet to fully realise its potential, and its investments would start to bear fruit as new plants in emerging markets enter production and new models are launched.
Promising greater effort on technology, products, synergies and cost reductions, he said Nissan could hit its operating margin target, compared with an estimated margin of about 5.5 to 6.0 percent for the year ending March 2015 including profit from China, which accounts four about one-quarter of its sales. China is excluded from Nissan's reported operating profit figure under existing accounting rules, but included in the 8 percent target.
"If you take a look at all the products we are bringing, all the technologies we are developing, all the expansion that took place even including in terms of capacity investments, presence into the emerging markets, strengthening the brand, I don't think personally an 8 percent operating margin is a very ambitious goal," Ghosn told Reuters.
Nissan, a leader among Japanese carmakers in profit margin just two years ago, forecast an operating margin of 5.0 percent for this financial year excluding China, up 0.2 percentage points from last year but still well below Toyota Motor Corp's <7203.T> forecast 8.9 percent and Honda Motor Co's <7267.T> projected 6.0 percent. Those figures also exclude China.
Nissan predicted 405 billion yen ($3.98 billion) in net profit for this financial year, up 4.1 percent from the same period a year ago but short of the 425.4 billion yen mean estimate of 21 analysts polled by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
"We were expecting Nissan's guidance to fall short of analyst expectations and it seems it has turned out to be true. We think Nissan will be having a hard time, unlike some of its competitors," said a trader at a European asset management advisory firm.
As its margins lagged, Nissan's share price has risen only 27 percent since mid-November 2012, when reflationary policies pushed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spurred a slide in the yen and sharply boosted Japanese exporters' shares.
Toyota shares are up 80 percent over that period and Honda stock is up 41 percent, although since the start of this year Nissan has outperformed the other two.
Shares of Nissan ended 0.2 percent lower before the results announcement, compared with a 0.4 percent decline in the benchmark Nikkei average <.N225>.
Like its Japanese rivals, Nissan said foreign exchange moves would negatively affect its earnings this year after providing a major lift last year. Currency moves are expected to cut its operating profit by 55 billion yen for 2014/15, after providing a 247.6 billion yen boost the year before.
Nissan forecast its global sales would grow 8.9 percent this financial year to 5.65 million vehicles for a market share of 6.7 percent, backed by growth in China and several Asian emerging markets where it struggled last year.
Sales in Japan are expected to drop 11 percent as demand shrinks after an April sales tax hike, but Nissan expects a 17.6 percent rise in China, bouncing back after sales plunged in late 2012 following a diplomatic row and surpassing the United States to become its biggest market.
The company is expanding its dealer network to new Chinese cities and expects strong sales of redesigned and new vehicles such as the X-Trail. Nissan has also started up new plants in recent months in Mexico and Brazil, and is expanding manufacturing capacity in Thailand, China and Russia.
Nissan will soon start sales of its low-cost Datsun brand in a number of emerging markets, helping to boost sales but potentially weighing on operating margins. Nissan expects a 4 to 7 percent operating profit margin on the Datsun models.
Ghosn said Datsun vehicles will likely boost Nissan's business substantially in rapidly growing economies such as India and Indonesia, although in Russia a slowdown in growth is casting a shadow over the auto market.
(Editing by Edmund Klamann, Christopher Cushing and Mark Potter)