By Tim Kelly
TOKYO, Japan (Reuters) - An expected $3.5 billion record net loss as TV sales slumped is raising a red flag with investors worried that Sharp has fumbled its business strategy. Takashi Okuda's appointment as its new boss suggests it is not about to flinch and abandon making TVs.
Okuda 58, who replaces Mikio Katayama as president on April 1, is a 30-year veteran. Much of his career has been spent in Sharps' TV business and in trying to expand sales to consumers overseas.
At a press briefing on Wednesday to announce the management changes, he pledged to revamp Sharp's operations while "emulating" the course steered by Katayama.
Katayama, who has run Sharp for five years and will remain influential as chairman, described his coming relationship with Okuda as a "three legged" race, suggesting the two will move in unison.
For that reason analysts expect Okuda to make few major changes and for the company to stick to a model of making its own TVs and selling surplus liquid crystal panels to third parties.
"Sharp shouldn't panic," said Shiro Mikoshiba, an analyst for Nomura Holdings. "I don't think Katayama's strategy was wrong."
In February, Sharp forecast a record 290 billion yen loss for the year to the end of March. A slump in TV sales forced it to halve output at an LCD plant in western Japan, raising questions about its business model.
Analysts agree on the problem at Sharp; it has two expensive LCD plants that are not being utilized enough because Sharp isn't selling enough of its Aquos-branded TVs either at home or overseas or is not finding customers to buy up enough of its surplus liquid crystal panels.
In the three months to December 31, that forced the company to write off 33 billion yen of inventory. Its newest plant in Sakai, western Japan, built at a cost of more than $4 billion was operating at only 50 percent of capacity during the quarter.
However, big TVs are selling well in the United States, which Sharp should exploit.
"They don't have the competitive edge to focus only on components," Mikoshiba said. "Instead they can pour their efforts into 60-inch TVs and develop that market. Sharp has a unique model where it is its own customer, where it supplies itself with panels to make TVs, so it's a strategy that they can follow. In the long term I think it's the only path that Sharp can follow."
Katayama suggested on Wednesday that the company's business strategy is right, despite the losses that are piling up.
"It was not the case that we were moving in the wrong direction," he told reporters. "New methods will become necessary and I want to endeavor to improve the company with the new president."
Okuda declined to give any details of what he plans, promising to reveal more in the coming weeks ahead of the company's full-year earnings announcement, which is likely to be released by the end of April.
"We do not expect the management reshuffle to lead to a major change in strategy," the Goldman Sachs analyst Takashi Watanabe said in a report Thursday.
Still, the losses are making investors nervous.
Shares of Japan's biggest maker of liquid crystal displays have tumbled to their lowest in nearly three decades since last month, when it forecast a the record loss .
Sharp closed up more than 4 percent Wednesday, on hopes a management shuffle would lead to a turnaround in the company's fortunes. On Thursday, its stock tumbled more than 5 percent as expectations of a change in direction evaporated.
Sharp sells more than half its TVs in Japan. Its consumer electronics unit, which is mostly TVs, also generates about half its overall revenue, suggesting room to expand into overseas markets, some analysts suggested.
Others said Sharp would be better off making fewer TVs while increasing sales of its screens to third parties, such as Apple. That would reduce a reliance on having to sell their own products, providing more certainty.
It would also make them a bigger player among LCD suppliers by diverting more production from Sakae and other lines to third parties.
"They have to be more of a component orientated maker rather than an end-product maker," said Yasuo Nakane, an analyst at Deutsche Securities in Tokyo. "If they just focus on their own component for their products they cannot fill the capacity, but if they expand their supply base into brands other than Sharp they have more chance," he said.
Sharp already supplies to Apple, among other end users, although media reports say that the latest higher-definition iPad will not include its screens. It will instead use panels from Korean rivals, including LG Display.
Okuda, who joined Sharp in 1978 and rose through the ranks to become head of the company's global business group, will have his work cut out for him to turnaround a company that turns 100 years old this year.
At the end of December, Sharp's net debt-to-equity ratio was 1.03, six times the industry average and the highest among Japan's electronics firms, Thomson Reuters data shows.
Losses last quarter erased about 180 billion yen in equity, prompting ratings agency Fitch to downgrade the outlook on its BBB- rating to negative, raising the possibility of a future cut to speculative grade.
Its weakened financial standing has fed market speculation it would need equity financing to shore up its balance sheet.
Underscoring the difficulties he faces in reining in costs, Japanese media reported that Sharp would ask workers to take a temporary freeze on pay increases.
Okuda, however, won't be alone at the top of a struggling Japanese consumer electronics firm.
Japanese peers Sony Corp and Panasonic Corp have also announced management changes. The three companies expect to post a combined loss of $17 billion this year, battered by tough competition from foreign rivals led by Samsung Electronics Co Ltd, weak demand and a strong yen.
(Editing by Neil Fullick)