By Yuka Obayashi
TOKYO - The top three Japanese steelmakers reduced their annual profit forecasts this month as slumping steel prices in Asia eroded their export margins while slower auto demand overseas and falling usage in machinery at home forced them to cut output.
The firms are suffering from a softening global economy hit by the U.S.-China trade row and rising costs of raw materials such as iron ore as top producer China boosts crude steel output to meet infrastructure demand and support its economy.
Japan's top steelmaker, Nippon Steel, slashed its business profit estimate by 33% to 100 billion yen ($917 million) for the year to March 31, after reporting a 54% decline in the April-September period.
"Steel margins have been squeezed amid tumbling Asian markets," Nippon Steel Executive Vice President Katsuhiro Miyamoto said, adding higher procurement costs and slowing exports by its Japanese manufacturing customers also hit profit.
"The global economy is weak and auto sales across the world are falling. We don't see any signs of recovery in overseas steel markets," he said. "It's a tough situation."
On Tuesday, JFE Holdings, Japan's No.2 steelmaker, lowered its annual business profit forecast by 57% to 60 billion yen as profit from its steel segment will fall to zero, the lowest since the company was established in 2002.
"The economies of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), India and Europe are slowing amid the U.S.-China trade row while overseas steel prices are slipping due to fierce competition," JFE Executive Vice President Masashi Terahata said.
"Domestic demand also slowed, especially in industrial and construction machinery, and even in construction," he said.
Kobe Steel, Japan's No.3 steelmaker, revised down its full-year estimate to a net loss of 5 billion yen from its earlier projection of a profit of 10 billion yen, blaming slack demand in automobiles abroad and in machinery at home.
Faltering demand forced the three companies to trim their annual crude steel output plans by 1-5%.
Japan's crude steel output in the July-September quarter fell to its lowest in 10 years amid slower demand and after a number of plants were shut following typhoons and a fire.
Nippon Steel said suspensions at local facilities, caused by power outages after lightning, a strong typhoon and a fire would reduce its annual profit by 50 billion yen.
In an effort to improve efficiency, Nippon Steel announced a restructuring plan to consolidate its 16 domestic bases into six steelworks that will be under the direct control of its president from next April.
JFE said it would cut its three-year capital expenditure plan of 1 trillion yen to March 2021 by 100 billion yen and reduce assets by 150 billion yen by selling shares in other companies and lowering inventory.
($1 = 109.1000 yen)
(Reporting by Yuka Obayashi; Additional reporting by Ritsuko Shimizu and Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Dale Hudson)