TOKYO (Reuters) - Honda Motor Co's earnings will hit bottom this year and improve beyond that as demand in the United States returns in the second half, the Japanese automaker's chief executive said on Friday.
"The last (January-March) quarter was the nadir, and things will gradually start to improve in the first two quarters (of this year)," Takeo Fukui told Reuters in an interview.
"I'm definitely expecting the second half to turn up, and on an annual basis I think this year will be the floor."
Battered by a sales slump in the United States, its biggest market, Japan's No.2 automaker lost a net 186 billion yen ($1.95 billion) in the fourth quarter of 2008/09, a reversal from a profit of 25.4 billion yen a year earlier. For the year to March 2010, Honda has forecast a 71 percent drop in net profit to 40 billion yen.
A key element in the earnings deterioration across the industry in the past year has been a double-digit sales slide in the United States, which lost its claim to being the world's biggest auto market to China this year. But Fukui said he believed the U.S. market had also reached a bottom, projecting a recovery in the latter half of 2009.
"A 10 million-unit (a year) market is abnormal for the United States," he said. "I think there's latent demand for 13 to 14 million units annually, and we'll get back to that level at some point."
One worry was the possible disruption if Chrysler, which filed for bankruptcy protection last month, dumped its cars on to the market from its inventory, Fukui said.
While Fukui said he hoped that Chrysler's bigger rival, General Motors Corp, would avoid Chapter 11, he said Honda -- and probably the rest of the industry -- was making necessary preparations for the possibility.
"You can't just assume that it won't happen and hope for the best," he said.
QUALITY-RELATED COSTS DOWN
Honda was the only top Japanese carmaker to stay in the black last year as Toyota Motor Corp and Nissan Motor Co lost money, and executives have cited its profitable and world-leading motorcycle business as a major boost.
But Fukui said another factor that gets little mention was the vast drop in warranty and other costs last year after a lengthy process of fixing quality issues finally began to bear fruit.
"The initiative started during my predecessor's tenure and it's been a long and painstaking process. We finally saw the results of that last year," said Fukui, who will step down as CEO next month after six years at the helm.
"The improvement will grow from here onwards."