Toyota Motor Corp is hitching its future to green cars, investing billions of dollars in gasoline-electric hybrids and fuel-cell vehicles, but for now its record profit performance is being powered largely by a gas-guzzling U.S. market.
In the United States, relatively cheap gasoline prices helped to spur brisk 9 percent growth in industry-wide light truck sales in the first half of the year, making that one of the fastest-growing major global market segments - accounting for about one-tenth of global vehicle sales.
Toyota outperformed the overall U.S. market, moreover, with its fresh model line-up - the Highlander SUV was redesigned in February and the Tundra pick-up got a facelift last September - powering a 10 percent rise in its January-June U.S. light truck sales to nearly half a million vehicles.
That success is feeding the nearly $40 billion cash pile that Toyota will tap for future green car investments.
"The U.S. is one of the few bright spots contributing to year-on-year profit growth for Toyota while it faces a slowdown in places like Japan and Thailand," said Koichi Sugimoto, an auto analyst at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley.
Light trucks, a category that includes SUVs, accounted for around 42 percent of Toyota's total U.S. sales in January-June, which were up 5 percent from a year earlier.
The strong showing continued in July, when Toyota's total U.S. sales rose 12 percent due to robust SUV demand and larger discounts, outperforming the industry's 9 percent growth and surpassing Ford Motor Co to become the No.2 seller for the month.
Analysts forecast that Toyota's April-June North American operating profit jumped at a double-digit rate from the same period a year ago, with Barclays auto analyst Tatsuo Yoshida putting the figure at 106 billion yen ($1.03 billion), up 30 percent year-on-year. The company will announce its first-quarter earnings on Tuesday.
Toyota's North America numbers undercount the region's actual contribution to profits, since they exclude much of the profits made from imported vehicles. Most of what Toyota earns through exports from its home country are counted with Japan profits, which likely fell in April-June due to a sales tax hike in April that dented domestic sales.
Barclays' Yoshida forecasts Toyota's Japan operating profit at 381 billion yen for the quarter, a 16 percent drop. In Asia, he expects a 12 percent decline to 92 billion yen.
LUCRATIVE LIGHT TRUCKS
Overall operating profit at the world's biggest automaker is expected to drop 4 percent in April-June to 637.3