* Sees negative forex impact of 34 bln yen this FY
* Start of Mexico plant reduces profitable exports to US (Adds details from earnings statement, forecasts)
By Chang-Ran Kim
TOKYO, April 24 (Reuters) - Japan’s Mazda Motor Corp on Friday forecast a modest 3.5 percent rise in operating profit in the year ahead, as losses from the yen’s strength against the euro, Australian dollar and Thai baht take the shine off higher vehicle sales.
For the year though March 2016, Mazda said it expected an operating profit of 210 billion yen ($1.76 billion), based on a dollar rate of 120 yen and a euro rate of 130 yen. A Thomson Reuters survey of 24 analysts before the statement estimated the annual profit would be about 234 billion yen.
For the current year, Mazda expects global vehicle sales, the majority of which are exports, to grow 6.6 percent to 1.49 million. A higher tax rate will push full-year net profit down 12 percent to 140 billion yen, it said.
The forecasts came as Mazda reported numbers showing operating profit for the fourth quarter of the year ended March 31 slid 12 percent to 50.9 billion yen, below Thomson Reuters SmartEstimate’s forecast of 53.21 billion yen. That left full-year profit at 202.89 billion yen, shy of its guidance of 210 billion yen.
Mazda is the first Japanese automaker to report earnings for the year ended March. Unlike most domestic peers, benefiting from the weakness of the yen against the dollar, Mazda is expected to see a negative impact, to the tune of 34 billion yen, from exchange rates this year: some currently profitable U.S.-bound exports from Japan have been reduced with the launch of a new factory in Mexico.
The Hiroshima-based firm has enjoyed brisk sales of refreshed models such as the Mazda2 subcompact car, and an improved brand image under its new SkyActiv series of fuel-efficient engines and transmissions.
But its heavy reliance on exports has left it vulnerable to foreign exchange fluctuations this year - including the collapse in the rouble in Russia, a key market for Mazda. Even as it seeks to boost production of cars and parts overseas, it still exported 80 percent of the cars it built at home in the just-ended business year.
Mazda also outlined targets for the year ending March 2019, including global sales of 1.65 million vehicles, operating margin of more than 7 percent, a dividend payout ratio of more than 20 percent and a return of equity of between 13 to 15 percent. (Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)