November 6, 2015 / 10:54 AM / 4 years ago

REFILE-Japan's trading firms give bleak outlook for commodity prices

(Corrects date in dateline)

By Yuka Obayashi

TOKYO, Nov 6 (Reuters) - Japan’s five biggest trading houses have given up hopes for a quick rebound in commodity prices, with top-ranked Mitsubishi revising its outlook for a recovery to 2018 from 2017.

Like international oil majors and mining companies, Japan’s trading firms have been caught flat-footed by the rout in commodities brought about by softening demand from top consumer China where economic growth has slowed.

Still, Itochu shone among the five as it reported a 40 percent rise in net profit for April-September period to a record 213 billion yen ($1.75 billion), earning more than Mitsubishi and Mitsui, while maintaining its full-year forecast.

Mitsubishi, meanwhile, slashed its full-year estimate after booking a 39 percent fall in the six-month profit, hit by tumbling prices of oil and coking coal.

Mitsui and Marubeni also posted a double-digit drop for the six months while Sumitomo returned to a profit from a loss in the year-ago period.

Itochu’s robust results came on strong profits from non-resource assets such as tyre, pulp and satellite TV which offset slack earnings from energy and metals.

“Even with our conservative assumption on resource prices, we are fairly confident to achieve full-year target of record profit,” Itochu’s CFO Tsuyoshi Hachimura said.

The trading houses invested aggressively in energy and metals during the resource boom of the 2000s, but the plunging prices has hurt profitability in the sector and the outlook remains gloomy.

Analysts say Itochu can better withstand a commodity downturn as it has a low exposure to resource assets.

“Itochu may need to book impairment losses on the Brazil iron ore project and other assets, but that can be covered by an upside of non-resource profits,” Akira Morimoto, senior analyst at SMBC Nikko Securities said.

“Visibility on its guidance for this year is high and we see Itochu as a relative standout for its ability to maintain underlying profit level,” he said, adding rivals need to become more selective on spending.

To defy the commodity slump, Mitsubishi’s CFO Shuma Uchino said the company may delay expansion plans such as for coal mines in Australia.

“We had expected a recovery in commodities prices in 2017, but it may be delayed by one year,” he said. “We may have to adjust the timing of the planned investment in the existing resource assets.”

Mitsui CFO Keigo Matsubara also warned that faltering prices in iron ore may continue through 2019.

“We aim to expand businesses that are not affected by volatility of commodity prices,” he said. ($1 = 121.8500 yen) (Reporting by Yuka Obayashi; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)

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