By Hyunjoo Jin
SEOUL (Reuters) - Hyundai Motor Co <005380.KS> could be one of the biggest losers from surging sales of Japanese cars in China as the South Korean automaker's problems spread from the United States to the world's largest auto market.
Hyundai's total overseas vehicle sales fell 1 percent in November from a year earlier, the company said on Monday, marking their first year-on-year drop since the 2009 financial crisis and sending Hyundai shares tumbling.
Japanese carmakers meanwhile are going from strength to strength thanks to the launch of new models, the weaker yen in the United States and an end to anti-Japan protests that played havoc with China sales last year.
Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> and its two local joint-venture partners saw China sales jump 41 percent in November from a year earlier, while Honda Motor Co Ltd <7267.T> posted a 102 percent jump in China sales in the same period.
Honda's gain follows a 211.6 percent year-on-year rise in October and a 118 percent surge in September.
"Japanese carmakers, which boosted U.S. profits with the weaker yen, have more room to invest in China sales where they lag behind rivals," said Song Sun-jae, an auto analyst at Hana Daetoo Securities. "For Hyundai, the China effect disappeared in November while the U.S. sales remain sluggish."
Shares in Hyundai Motor and its affiliate Kia Motors <000270.KS>, which together rank fifth in global auto sales, ended down 4.2 percent and 5.2 percent on Tuesday, respectively, hurt by weak November sales and as the yen skidded to a more than six-month low against the dollar. The Korea Composite Stock Price Index closed 1.1 percent lower.
CHINA STRATEGY, U.S. STRAINS
Hyundai's new plant in Beijing, which went into production last year, has helped to offset stagnating demand in the United States. Even so, China sales rose only 1 percent in November from a year earlier.
The plant, Hyundai's third in China, has capacity to produce 300,000 vehicles and the company plans to increase this to 450,000 next year.
Hyundai is considering building a fourth plant in China to maintain its market share of around 10 percent in 2015-2016, when the Chinese market is expected to grow to 20 million vehicles a year.
But the timing of any new plant has not been announced and group chairman Chung Mong-koo remains wary of major capacity expansion, a person familiar with the matter said earlier this year.
In the United States, Hyundai is certain to miss its annual sales target for the first time in recent years, as January-November sales rose just 2 percent.
Hyundai is betting that its new Genesis and Sonata sedans will lift sales by 10 percent next year, although analysts say capacity constraints and rising competition will keep sales under pressure.
Hyundai's reputation took hit in the U.S. market in November after it admitted it had overstated the fuel economy of more than 1 million vehicles in North America.
"The currency environment has been dramatically changed and competition has been cut-throat," Ryu Yen-wha, an analyst at IM Investment & Securities.
"My view is that the upcoming Genesis and Sonata will not have as much impact as they did in the past, because of the lack of innovations in design and powertrain," he said.
Hyundai and Kia were the only major South Korean carmakers to suffer falls in domestic sales in November, as they struggled to fend off competition from smaller rivals and imported cars.
South Korean sales slumped 12 percent in November from a year earlier, Hyundai said. Kia's domestic sales fell 12 percent, while its overseas sales inched up 2 percent.
($1 = 1057.2000 Korean won)
(Additional reporting by Jungmin Jang in SEOUL; Editing by Stephen Coates)