Nissan Motor Co <7201.T> expects growth in emerging markets and launches of new models such as its Micra compact to provide only a modest boost to profits this year, in a cautious view echoing its larger Japanese rivals.
While top-ranked Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> and No.2 Honda Motor Co <7267.T> have benefited from their lead in fuel-efficient hybrid models in mature markets, Nissan has grown faster in China where drivers still prefer cheap, conventional cars.
Last year, Nissan's sales shot up 45 percent in China, the world's biggest auto market, making it the best performer among Japanese automakers.
However, a lack of hybrid offerings and increasing competition looked set to weigh on Japan's No.3 automaker, said Koichi Ogawa, chief portfolio manager at Daiwa SB Investments.
In comparison to the past, Nissan did pretty well. That's mainly because it was strong in China and emerging markets, especially over this past year, said Ogawa, who described the outlook as unsatisfying.
It's done quite well up to now considering it doesn't have any hybrids, but competition is likely to get tougher now and it'll take some time before its electric car is ready.
After trailing Toyota and Honda in environmentally friendly technology, Nissan is looking to rebrand itself as a green automaker by becoming the first to market electric cars in big volumes from 2012, starting with the five-seater Leaf, along with partner Renault SA .
Renault-Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn has been the industry's most aggressive proponent of electric vehicles and has said he expects one in every 10 new cars sold globally to be battery-run by 2020.
For the year to March 31, 2011, Nissan forecast an operating profit of 350 billion yen ($3.78 billion), up 12 percent from the 311.6 billion yen it made last year but lagging a consensus forecast of 411 billion yen in a poll of 22 analysts by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
It expects net profit to more than treble to 150 billion yen and global sales to grow about 8 percent to 3.8 million vehicles.
Japanese automakers are often conservative in their profit forecasts, particularly early in the year. Toyota on Tuesday projected an 80 percent rise in 2010/2011 operating profit to 280 billion yen, but that was little more than half what analysts were expecting.
Honda last month said it expected operating profit to rise 10 percent to 400 billion yen, 20 percent below consensus.
Nissan's operating profit in the final, January-March quarter was 82.7 billion yen, compared with a loss of 230.4 billion yen a year earlier, when the economic crisis hammered sales, forcing the industry to scale back production.
The result was in line with the consensus estimate of 90 billion yen. Nissan posted a fourth-quarter net loss of 11.6 billion yen versus a loss of 276.9 billion yen a year ago.
This year, Nissan is looking to gain a foothold in India, another promising battleground for global automakers. Nissan will begin production in India for the first time, starting with the Micra hatchback later this month.
The Micra, called March in some markets, is Nissan's most important model in years and its main hope for expanding sales in emerging and developed markets alike.
SEEN THE WORST
But the removal of government stimulus measures, Europe's debt woes and related strength in the yen, along with the expensive bets on new, more environmentally friendly technology have prompted caution among many automakers.
Ghosn said the problems stemming from Greece's funding shortfall were unlikely to require any downward revision to Nissan's already weak forecast for the European market.
We know the worst of the crisis is behind us and our plan of action is to emerge from the crisis completely in this fiscal year and start a new mid-term plan in fiscal year 2011, he told a news conference.
Ghosn, who has led Nissan for 11 years since the beginning of its tie-up with Renault, said the alliance expects a contribution of more than 240 billion yen from synergies in 2010, up slightly from 228 billion yen last year.
Nissan and Renault are also looking to extend those savings in the coming years through their newly formed partnership with Germany's Daimler AG .
Shares in Nissan have lost around 7 percent in the year to date, about double the fall in Tokyo's transport sector subindex <.ITEQP.T>.
Before the results, Nissan ended up 1.1 percent at 745 yen, while the transport sector rose 1.6 percent.
(Additional reporting by Elaine Lies; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Joseph Radford)