Japan's electronics sector in race against time

Japan's battered electronics giants are in a race against time, analysts say, as losses that threaten their very survival mount and as overseas rivals look like they are running away with the show.

The latest earnings season has been ugly for the likes of Panasonic and Sharp, which say they will post an eye-watering combined annual loss of more than $15 billion, underlining fears about the sector's future.

Money-losing Sony offered a glimmer of hope by saying it was still on course to eke out an annual profit, after four years in the red.

However, Sharp nearly doubled its loss forecast to a record $5.6 billion -- and voiced doubt for the first time over whether it could remain a going concern -- just a day after Panasonic said it would lose $9.6 billion in the year to March.

The sector's myriad woes range from high labour costs at home and the strong yen to strategic blunders and a failure to keep up with rivals such as Apple and South Korea's Samsung in the lucrative smartphone and tablet market.

Japan's formerly world-beating brands are falling further behind while they continue making everything from phones and CD players to money-losing TVs and washing machines -- even as their key domestic market slows.

Among its missteps, the industry made huge investments in flat-screen televisions only to see prices plunge in an intensely competitive market, meaning razor-thin profit margins -- or none at all -- for firms that can ill afford them.

But they've largely resisted calls to abandon money-losing units, with longtime rivals Sony and Panasonic saying they are teaming up to make televisions.

"Japanese electronics firms need to sift through their businesses, taking what's good and leaving what's bad," said Masahiko Hashimoto, economist at Daiwa Institute of Research in Tokyo.

Slick marketing campaigns and locally-tailored products products offered by profitable automakers such as Toyota and Nissan are noticeably absent among many of the nation's once-mighty television giants.

"Japanese electronics makers had managed to get by through relying heavily on the domestic market so it's no wonder they've reached an impasse in line with that declining market," said Mitsushige Akino, an analyst at Ichiyoshi Investment Management in Tokyo.

"Before, they succeeded in selling things in developed nations by merely copying what they sold at home -- and they didn't take developing economies very seriously at first," he added.

The sector was slow to tap fast-growing emerging economies like the so-called BRICS nations -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- and has paid the price for their glacial strategy shift, Akino said.

Like many Japanese companies, electronics companies are hamstrung by high labour costs at home and the stubbornly strong yen, which makes their exports expensive and eats into repatriated profits.

A slowing global economy, last year's quake-tsunami disaster and weak demand in Europe -- a key market for Japanese exports -- are also unhelpful.

And this week the firms pointed to yet another unwanted problem: Tokyo's diplomatic spat with China over a disputed East China Sea island chain, which has seen a Chinese consumer boycott of Japan-brand goods.

Sharp, Sony and Panasonic have all announced massive corporate overhauls that include tens of thousands of job cuts to rescue their bleeding balance sheets, suffering credit downgrades and share price plunges in the process.

This summer, Sony's stock tumbled below 1,000 yen for the first time since 1980 and the era of the Walkman.

Panasonic said shareholders would not get dividend payments this year, the first time in decades.

Sharp, meanwhile, is putting up real estate -- including its Osaka headquarters -- as collateral for bank loans crucial to keeping the century-old firm alive.

This week, Sharp ominously warned there was "material doubt" about its ability to carry on as a viable company.

That warning was quickly followed by Fitch's six-notch credit rating downgrade that reduced Sharp's debt to junk status, warning they faced a severe cash-flow crisis.

"We think time is running out for the company," said Shunsuke Tsuchiya, analyst at Credit Suisse.

Once admired for their innovation, Japan's electronics sector must recalibrate with products that not only match rival offerings, but outdo them, analysts say.

"Japanese electronics makers used to have an outstanding advantage in terms of technology and that is their strength," said Keita Wakabayashi, analyst at Mito Securities in Tokyo. "But that advantage is running out."

--

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