By Hyunjoo Jin
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's Hyundai Motor <005380.KS> posted its first year-on-year fall in quarterly revenue in nearly three years, hit by a stronger local currency and slumping sales at home, compounding the challenges facing the once star performer.
Hyundai, the world's fifth-biggest automaker along with Kia Motors <000270.KS>, has endured a tough year, marked by lacklustre performances in the United States and Europe, a string of recalls and a management reshuffle.
The company's China sales jumped last year, but growth slowed in the fourth quarter in the key market as Japanese rivals made a comeback. It hopes increased capacity will push growth back up in China this year.
Hyundai concedes global sales growth will slow to 4 percent this year from 7 percent last year, even as it plans to launch a revamped version of its popular Sonata sedan. Overall, it aims to sell 4.9 million vehicles in 2014.
On Thursday, the carmaker posted a revenue of 21.94 trillion Korean won ($20.56 billion) in the October to December period, a 3 percent fall from a year earlier. This marked its first year-on-year fall since at least 2011 when new accounting methods were adopted.
"Currency fluctuations - the won's strength coupled with the yen's weakness - weighed on our earnings," Hyundai said in a statement.
The South Korean won gained 3 percent against the dollar and surged 27 percent versus the Japanese yen in the fourth quarter from a year earlier, reducing the value of Hyundai Motor's overseas revenue in local currency terms and lifting Japanese rivals' price competitiveness in the United States and other key export markets.
Hyundai seeks to revive growth with new models, but the won's strength, coupled with the yen's weakness, may toughen competition and curb price rises.
"It will be challenging for Hyundai to enjoy new car effects as it did in the past because of intensifying competition," Kim Kwan-oh, a fund manger at Consus Asset Management, said.
"Other than capacity expansion, there seems to be little way for Hyundai to increase revenue," he said.
Hyundai has not announced new plant plans in recent years, opting for squeezing out more vehicles from existing plants. This allowed the automaker to run factories at full capacity globally and achieve an industry-leading margin of 9.5 percent last year, but sales growth slowed down.
Net profit jumped 15 percent to 2.06 trillion won, but missed a consensus forecast of 2.23 trillion. Its profit a year ago was hurt by provisions to cover the cost of compensating customers for overstated fuel-economy claims on some cars sold in the United States and Canada.
Shares in Hyundai Motor ended down 1.9 percent after the results, versus the wider market's <.KS11> 1.2 percent drop.
In its home market of South Korea, Hyundai's sales slumped 13 percent in the fourth quarter as imported rivals like Volkswagen and Mercedes Benz boosted sales after trade deals.
South Korea is the third biggest market for Hyundai, after China and the United States, but a lucrative revenue source as the automaker sells more large-sized, higher-margin cars than it does in the bigger U.S. market.
Hyundai's China growth slowed to 4 percent last quarter, as Japanese rivals strongly rebounded from a sales slump after tensions eased in a territorial row between Japan and China.
But for the whole year, its China sales surged 21 percent, driven by its new plant which went into operations in 2012.
The South Korean automaker hopes to increase China sales by more than 10 percent in 2014, fuelled by an increased capacity, Lee Won-hee, Hyundai's chief financial officer said.
Last year, Hyundai's U.S. sales rose just 3 percent and Europe sales slumped 8.8 percent, as the automaker lost market share in the markets where it used to outperform.
Hyundai's new U.S. chief expected its market share to increase slightly to 4.7 percent this year from 4.6 percent in 2013, propelled by new models such as the revamped Sonata sedan and fewer capacity constraints.
In Europe, Hyundai is pinning hopes on the revamped version of the i10 and i20 small cars, Lee said.
(Additional reporting by Sohee Kim; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)