Economy, Auto

Mitsubishi Living With Less

Mitsubishi Living With LessMitsubishi Living With Less

Mitsubishi Motors Corporation's market value and Japanese orders have halved since it admitted last week to rigging fuel economy tests.

However, with more than $4 billion in cash and low debt, the automaker should contain the potential damages.

"The firm has repeated the same kind of wrongdoing, so the situation is not good," said a government source who did not want to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, according to a report from Reuters.

The scope of its cheating also now seems more limited than at first feared, improving the prospects that one of Japan's smaller automakers can survive a third scandal in recent years.

That history of scandals though could put its long-term survival at risk given the latest battering to its branding. In 2004, it was saved from collapse by other Mitsubishi companies.

The survival of companies like Mitsubishi highlights the difficulty of shaking out weak players in a cut-throat industry, if management avoids tough decisions to downsize, merge or liquidate, industry observers say.

"This creates an environment where inertia is the norm, which allows automakers which may otherwise disappear to continue to survive for decades," said James Chao, Asia-Pacific managing director of research at IHS Automotive in Shanghai.

 Weak Demand

Demand for Mitsubishi cars has weakened, particularly at home, where the maker of the Outlander SUV and Delica mini-van sold just 102,000 vehicles in the year through March, half the number it sold less than a decade ago.

With annual sales of around 1 million vehicles, MMC is a minnow in the global market and has surrendered market share to rivals, including Honda, Mazda and Hyundai.

Shares in MMC rose more than 6% on Thursday ahead of a market holiday, but are down 48% since the company said it manipulated mileage test data on four mini-vehicle models, wiping $3.7 billion off its market value.

A nagging concern for investors had been whether MMC also rigged data for cars sold in the United States. While MMC sold fewer than 100,000 cars there last year, it's a more litigious marketplace and could have meant significantly higher damages.

MMC says mileage ratings on its US vehicles were correct.

Mitsubishi's balance sheet shows it has cash—453.4 billion yen ($4.23 billion) —to cover potential costs, and with debts of just 27 billion yen and no outstanding term loans, it has room to borrow if necessary. Its shareholder equity to assets ratio, at 48%, has grown steadily.

"We've been building up our finances over the past two to three years," Managing Director Yutaka Tabata said this week. "Our financial structure is strong."

MMC has prioritized bolstering its finances since previous scandals involving hiding customer complaints and secret recalls led to the arrest of former executives and its bailout. That may have seen governance and compliance take a back seat.

S&P analysts, who placed MMC's credit rating on negative watch, said they had thought the company's restructuring and improved governance following previous scandals had helped its performance.

"However, we recognize that the fraudulent testing is evidence of a significant problem in the company's management and governance," they said.