Sony shares at near 32-year lows on strategy doubts

TOKYO Fri May 11, 2012 3:01pm IST

A Sony logo is seen as customers look at Sony's digital cameras at an electronic shop in Tokyo May 10, 2012. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

A Sony logo is seen as customers look at Sony's digital cameras at an electronic shop in Tokyo May 10, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

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TOKYO (Reuters) - Shares in Sony Corp slumped more than 7 percent to near 32-year lows, as investors doubted t h e Japanese consumer electronics giant has a strategy to fix its loss-making TV business and compete in the smartphone market against Apple Inc and Samsung Electronics.

The last time Sony shares were this low, in the summer of 1980, its first Walkman portable cassette player had just gone on sale in the United States. So far this year, Sony has seen more than $3 billion wiped off its market value.

The maker of Bravia TVs, Vaio laptops and PlayStation games consoles on Thursday posted a record annual loss of $5.7 billion, but forecast a first profit in five years as it looks to halve losses at its ailing TV business. The net profit forecast was below analysts' expectations.

Japanese firms, which long dominated the global TV industry, have been overtaken by Samsung and LG Electronics, which are rolling out next-generation sets using organic light emitting display (OLED), in a reshaping of Asia's flat panel sector. A stronger yen, which erodes the value of exports, has also not helped.

"(In the past) if you wanted a top quality TV you had to buy a Sharp, Panasonic or Sony. Those days are gone," Steve Durose, Senior Director and Head of Asia-Pacific at Fitch Ratings, told Reuters last month.

"I didn't see anything positive in there (Sony's results)," said a trader at a U.S. bank. "There's really nothing in there that can justify buying the stock. You see the loss narrowing in the TV business. That's fine, but I don't see any future in the TV business, so it doesn't matter what they do."

Shares of Panasonic Corp, which makes Viera TVs, also fell, 1.6 percent, to their lowest close in more than three decades. After the market closed, Panasonic also posted a record annual loss, of $9.7 billion, and predicted a return to profit this year after a heavy bout of cost-cutting and restructuring.

Sharp Corp, Japan's other main TV manufacturer, fell 5.1 percent to its lowest close since November 1979.

TOO OPTIMISTIC?

Analysts said the Sony results were largely neutral while its forecasts looked too optimistic.

"We see no catalyst that might spur a sustained (share) rally," Deutsche Bank analyst Yasuo Nakane wrote in a note.

Shiro Mikoshiba, Nomura Equity Research analyst, wrote: "We still regard downsizing and product strategies worthy of the Sony brand as indispensable preconditions of any share price upside."

While Mikoshiba sees a sharp profit rebound towards the end of this calendar year, "uncertainty surrounding sales of core products, including TVs, smartphones and digital cameras (means) we're unable to pin down a turning point for the share price."

Sony's new CEO Kazuo Hirai has said Sony will sell more than 33 million smartphones this business year, up from 22.5 million last year, and will more than double sales of its portable game players, including the PlayStation Vita, to 16 million. Analysts, though, point to weak demand for game players in major markets and fierce competition in smartphones.

"In our view, guidance for profit improvement in digital cameras, games, li-ion batteries and smartphones looks optimistic and we see downside risk," Goldman Sachs analysts wrote in a client note, keeping their 'sell' rating on the stock. "We think TV losses may be smaller than the company forecasts ... but we see significant downside risk to overall guidance."

The U.S. bank trader said Sony's forecast of 33 million smartphone shipments in the year to next March looked optimistic given that its supplier, Qualcomm (QCOM.O), faced capacity constraints and the firm's priority is to supply Apple, which could leave Sony without enough smartphone chips to meet its target.

Sony carried a 12-month forward price-to-book ratio of 0.56, slightly below Panasonic's 0.64 and Sharp's 0.67, Datastream data showed - all way below the electronics sector's 1.08.

(Editing by Edwina Gibbs and Ian Geoghegan)

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