BERLIN (Reuters) - Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE) posted its first quarterly loss in at least 15 years on Wednesday, hit by a 6.7 billion euros (5 billion pounds) charge to cover the cost of rigging diesel emissions tests, and said the final bill was likely to be higher.
As a result, the German carmaker said it expected its 2015 operating profit would drop “significantly below” last year’s record 12.7 billion euros, even though its auto sales are seen matching last year’s record 10.14 million deliveries.
The news came as the company’s new CEO was about to fly to China with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other business leaders to promote trade in a major export market and try to limit the damage of a scandal that has rocked the auto industry.
Almost six weeks after it admitted using illegal software to falsify U.S. diesel emissions tests, Europe’s biggest carmaker is under pressure to identify those responsible, fix up to 11 million affected vehicles and convince regulators, investors and customers it can be trusted again.
The biggest business crisis in its 78-year history has wiped more than a quarter off VW’s stock market value, forced out its long-time chief executive and tarnished a business held up for generations as a model of German engineering prowess.
New VW finance chief Frank Witter said on Wednesday the cost of the scandal would be “enormous, but manageable” and the firm intended to get taxpayers help for the 6.7-billion-euro provision to cover initial costs, such as for vehicle refits.
“When it comes to fines and penalties the situation is probably very different,” Witter told a conference call. “But for those items we provisioned for today it is very legitimate and right to have them tax-deductible.”
VW also said it had hired consultants Deloitte to support an investigation into the scandal by U.S. law firm Jones Day, with new CEO Matthias Mueller saying those responsible would face tough consequences.
Mueller added VW would focus more on profitability than sales volumes in future. His predecessor, Martin Winterkorn, set VW the goal of becoming the world’s biggest carmaker by sales volumes, and critics have said this may have inadvertently led to the use of software that disguised the level of real toxic emissions in VW’s diesel engines.
Though Mueller has promised far reaching change, some analysts and investors have questioned whether the company veteran is the right man to lead the overhaul, which they say needs greater openness from the family, local government and trade union interests that control the carmaker.
“That Volkswagen now finds itself in this current situation is something that some might say is not so surprising,” said Yngve Slyngstad, the CEO of Norway’s wealth fund which owns a stake in VW and has been a critic of its corporate governance.
He added it was too early to say whether the steps taken by VW’s new leadership were enough, as his fund posted a quarterly loss on its investments in part due to the plunge in VW shares.
VW reported an operating loss of 3.48 billion euros for July-September, its fiscal third-quarter, in line with analysts’ expectations.
The 6.7 billion euro provision was up from the 6.5 billion announced a week after the cheating became public on Sept. 18.
The company said it did not know what the ultimate cost of the scandal would be. Some analysts have said it could reach 35 billion euros in regulatory fines, lawsuits and vehicle refits.
“It is currently impossible to assess the legal risks connected with the diesel issue due to the early stage of the comprehensive and exhaustive investigations,” VW said in its quarterly report. “As a consequence, corresponding provisions have not been recognised in the interim financial statements.”
But some analysts took comfort in VW’s robust balance sheet.
Its net cash and liquid assets jumped 29 percent in the quarter to 27.8 billion euros after it sold a 19.9 percent stake in Suzuki Motor Corp. Reserves may keep growing in the fourth quarter when proceeds from a transaction involving VW’s holding in financing company LeasePlan, valued at 3.7 billion euros, are expected to be booked, analysts said.
“We see it as a positive signal that VW has pretty much kept the provision (of 6.7 billion euros) for the scandal unchanged,” London-based analyst Arndt Ellinghorst at Evercore ISI said.
“Together with the very strong net liquidity, this should reassure both equity and fixed income investors.”
VW shares were up 3.8 percent at 109.15 euros at 1500 GMT.
Witter said the company had no plans at the moment to cut its dividend.
VW has said it will speed up development of electric and hybrid vehicles in the wake of the crisis, and the head of its namesake brand told reporters at the Tokyo motor show the company’s next flagship model would be an all-electric vehicle.
However, Herbert Diess added the carmaker remained committed to diesel engines, amid warnings from some analysts that the technology - which tends to produce less carbon dioxide than gasoline engines and accounts for about half of vehicle sales in Europe - could be irreparably damaged by the VW scandal.
“We still believe in the future of diesel engines because they are in the trade-off of emissions and CO2, they are a very good option for many vehicles,” he said.
Sales chief Axel Kalthoff said on VW’s results conference call there had been no significant impact on group sales from the scandal.
Group deliveries, which also include premium brands Audi and Porsche, slid 1.5 percent in September to 885,300 vehicles and were down 3.4 percent in the third quarter to 2.39 million, causing VW to drop behind Toyota in nine-month global auto sales charts after briefly overtaking its Japanese rival to become world No.1 three months earlier.
Excluding costs of the scandal, VW said it still expected the group operating margin to come in between 5.5 and 6.5 percent this year, after 6.3 percent in 2014.
Additional reporting by Camilla Knudsen in Oslo and Naomi Tajitsu in Tokyo; Writing by Mark Potter; Editing by Susan Thomas