By Chang-Ran Kim
YOKOHAMA, Japan (Reuters) - Nissan Motor Co is on track to be the most profitable of Japan's three big automakers this year, after record car sales last year and improved market share in every major region pushed up quarterly operating profit.
Nissan kept its net profit forecast at 290 billion yen ($3.77 billion) for the year to end-March, ahead of Honda Motor Co's forecast for 215 billion yen and Toyota Motor Corp's 200 billion yen.
"It looks like the company is doing pretty well compared to Toyota and Honda," said Hiroyuki Fukunaga, CEO of Investrust, noting Nissan's 9-month operating profit now totaled 84 percent of its annual target.
"These were positive results, but I'm not sure Nissan's share price will gain like Toyota did today. The upward (forecast) revision from Toyota led to hopes for the next financial year, but Nissan seems like it's going at cruising speed," he added.
Toyota shares surged 5 percent to a more than 6-month high on Wednesday, a day after the company increased its annual profit forecast by more than a third. It was the stock's biggest one-day percentage gain in almost 11 months.
Nissan also kept its forecast for full-year operating profit of 510 billion yen, below a 547 billion yen consensus forecast in a poll of 25 analysts by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Nissan reports under Japanese accounting standards, with earnings from China included in operating income, while its two main rivals report under U.S. accounting rules, with their China earnings included in net income.
Despite launching few new models, Nissan increased its global auto sales by 14 percent last year to 4.67 million vehicles, and CEO Carlos Ghosn, who also heads partner Renault SA, aims to achieve the scale he says top automakers need to invest in future technologies.
Nissan sold more than 1.2 million vehicles in the quarter, up 19.5 percent, helping revenue grow 11 percent to 2.33 trillion yen.
October-December operating profit edged up 3.6 percent to 118.1 billion yen ($1.54 billion), slightly below the average estimate of 122.6 billion yen from 10 analysts polled by Reuters. Net profit rose 3.2 percent to 82.67 billion yen.
Among Japan's three leading automakers, Nissan was the fastest to recover from both the earthquake last March and flooding in Thailand that ruptured supply chains, swiftly sourcing parts from its global network.
Nissan said it lost just 33,000 vehicles of output from the Thai floods, while Toyota and Honda each lost more than 200,000.
The popularity of new models such as the Rogue and Juke crossovers also helped Nissan gain on its rivals.
Combined Renault-Nissan sales, plus those of Renault's Russian affiliate AvtoVAZ, rose 10 percent to top 8 million vehicles, ranking third worldwide behind General Motors Co and Volkswagen AG, and ahead of Toyota.
With the launch of 20 new or reconfigured models globally over the next 24 months, Nissan has flagged more growth, particularly in the United States, where its strong-selling Altima sedan will be refreshed this year.
BATTLING THE YEN
Nissan is also hedging aggressively against the impact of the strong yen, with plans to shift production of the Infiniti JX, Rogue and Murano SUVs out of Japan, and increase the ratio of parts sourced overseas for Japan-made cars.
Nissan had planned to double the ratio of foreign-sourced parts to 40 percent by 2013 from 2009 levels, but Corporate Vice President Joji Tagawa said on Wednesday those plans would move faster given the yen's further appreciation.
"Given the current level of the yen, we are looking to accelerate these plans," he told a news conference.
Nissan aims to achieve an operating profit margin of 8 percent by the end of a six-year business plan that runs through March 2017, assuming a dollar rate of 85 yen. Nissan forecasts a margin of 5.4 percent this year, assuming the dollar at 79.9.
Nissan shares have gained about 11 percent in 2012, lagging both Toyota, which is up 21 percent, and Honda, up 20 percent. The main Topix index is up nearly 7 percent.
Nissan rose 2.4 percent on Wednesday ahead of its results, compared with a 1.2 percent rise in the Topix.
($1 = 76.8800 Japanese yen)
(Additional reporting by Hideyuki Sano; Editing by Ian Geoghegan and Joseph Radford)