Nissan Downgraded on Weak Profit Outlook After Ghosn Arrest

(Bloomberg) -- Nissan Motor Co. took another hit as the automaker’s debt rating was cut on concerns the next two years will be marked by slowing sales and a preoccupation with cleaning up after the scandal involving Carlos Ghosn.

The company’s rating was lowered for the first time in a decade by S&P Global Ratings to A- from A. The outlook on the long-term debt score is stable, the rating firm said. The company’s A2 grade at Moody’s Investors Service also was placed on review for a downgrade.

Nissan reduced its full-year earnings forecast after third-quarter profit missed analysts’ estimates, adding to the headwinds for a carmaker struggling with the fallout from the arrest of former chairman Ghosn. Sales in the U.S. plunged 19 percent in January amid an industrywide slump, intensifying the pressure on Chief Executive Officer Hiroto Saikawa as he tries to ease tensions with partner and shareholder Renault SA. Nissan is cutting as many as 700 workers at a Mississippi factory because of slowing truck and van sales.

“Given severe business circumstances in the automotive business, we believe the company will find it difficult to restore its weakened profitability over the next one to two years,” S&P said. “It will take time to stabilize its management.”

The company declined to comment.

Automaker ratings of S&P comparison

Nissan Motor Co.A-
Toyota Motor Corp.AA-
Honda Motor Co.A
Mitsubishi Motors Corp.BB+
Renault SABBB
Tesla Inc.B-
Daimler AGA
Volkswagen AGBBB+

Before the downgrade, Nissan already was getting the cold shoulder in the bond market, after Ghosn’s incarceration exposed new lapses in corporate governance, according to market participants.

“It’s bad timing because automakers all need financing for investment in new technologies,” said Seiji Sugiura, an analyst at Tokai Tokyo Research Center. “It sends a negative message to shareholders because it increases the chance for them to cut their dividend.”

The last time Nissan tapped the bond market was April 2016, when it raised 125 billion yen ($1.1 billion) in a sale of five-, seven- and 10-year notes. The spread on the 10-year security’s yield has widened to about 60 basis points above equivalent Japanese government bonds this year, from 40 basis points at the time they were issued.

Nissan and its French partner have spent the last three months coping with a major reputational hit from Ghosn’s arrest, indictments by Tokyo prosecutors over alleged financial improprieties and an unflattering spotlight on both companies’ corporate governance controls.

Then there’s the sluggish sales in China and the U.S., Britain’s potentially jarring exit from the European Union and huge investments in electric and autonomous vehicles hovering over the entire auto industry.

Taken together, these negatives could leave the alliance partners falling behind competitors such as Volkswagen AG and Toyota Motor Corp. in the race to adapt to the changing terrain. The risks may be greater for Nissan since the lion’s share of allegations against Ghosn reflect his tenure there, and its business challenges are tougher than Renault’s.

Ghosn remains in a Tokyo jail, accused of aggravated breach of trust and filing false statements to regulators regarding $80 million in deferred income looms. He was arrested Nov. 19 and faces as many as 10 years in prison if convicted. He denies all charges.

Nissan this month took a 9.2 billion yen ($83 million) charge over Ghosn’s deferred compensation for the eight years ending in 2017. In doing so, the carmaker is trying to end any debate over whether Ghosn hid millions of dollars in income deferred until his retirement from his fellow executives and board members.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.