TOKYO (Reuters) - Just over a week out from revelations of a cheating scandal that plunged Kobe Steel Ltd in crisis and ensnared hundreds of firms, the embattled steelmaker's shares skidded to five-year lows on Monday as investors worried about the financial and legal fallout.
Kobe Steel Chief Executive Hiroya Kawasaki on Friday said about 500 companies had received its falsely certified products, more than double its earlier count, confirming widespread wrongdoing at the steelmaker.
Shares of Japan's third-biggest steelmaker hit 774.0 yen in the morning, the lowest since Dec. 11, 2012. They managed to recover and rise 2.7 percent by the close to 827.0 yen, but remain well off the pre-crisis level of 1,368 yen.
The broader Tokyo stock market ended 0.47 percent, touching a 21-year high.
No safety problems have surfaced as the Japanese steelmaker attempts to get a grip on the data tampering that it earlier said may go back as far as 10 years.
The revelations over the past week rippled through supply chains across the world as companies from operators of Japan's famous bullet trains to the world's biggest aircraft maker, Boeing Co,, were ensnared in the scandal.
The company's finances could come under increasing pressure as Kawasaki has promised to compensate customers for any costs arising from replacements. The impact appears limited, said an analyst, who attended a briefing by executives late on Monday that was not open to media.
"Obviously, Kobe Steel cannot rule out the risk of future impact, but so far so good, in our view," Thanh Ha Pham, an analyst at Jefferies in Tokyo, wrote in a note after the briefing.
The company told analysts and investors it had nearly 368 billion yen on hand in cash, short-term securities and unused credit from banks, and is seeking to generate cash by cutting working capital or selling assets, he said.
Executives told the meeting that it may not be able to assess the impact on earnings by the time it reports its first-half results on Oct. 30.
Kobe Steel is forecasting profit of 35 billion yen ($313 million) in the year through March 2018, after two annual losses, mostly recently because of falling margins in its steel business and a one-off loss related to its China construction machinery unit.
Sales are forecast to rise a bit more than 10 percent to 1.88 trillion yen. The company is forecasting a third year of negative free cash flow, according to the Nikkei newspaper.
Kobe Steel has been investing in upgrading facilities in the area most hard hit by the revelations, its aluminum business, as it tries to diversify away from the steel business.
The company said in May it plans to spend 55 billion yen to expand its aluminum business to meet rising demand for carmakers that are turning to the lighter metal to meet stricter environmental rules.
While the immediate impact from the cheating scandal exposes 500 companies to potential safety issues, Kobe Steel's total client base is far larger.
In Japan alone, more than 6,100 companies deal with the company, according to credit research firm Teikoku Databank. The majority of these firms, 56 percent, are the small to medium enterprises which make up the backbone of Japan's economy.
"Many of the big Japanese companies have been struggling to cope with fast-changing society, especially without strong leadership of managers to steer it around to a new phase of growth," a fund manager at an independent asset management firm in Japan said.
His firm, which focuses on growth companies, does not own shares in Kobe Steel.
Japanese companies are run by managers who have moved up through corporate bureaucracy, he said, adding that these managers tend not to take big risks during their terms of about four to six years.
The scale of the misconduct at the steelmaker hammered its shares as investors, worried about the financial impact and legal fallout, wiped about $1.8 billion off its market value last week.
Kobe Steel said the problems had gone beyond the borders of Japan with data falsification found in subsidiaries in Thailand, China and Malaysia.
Kobe Steel initially said on Oct. 8, 200 companies were affected when it admitted at the weekend it had falsified data about the quality of aluminum and copper products used in cars, aircraft, space rockets and defense equipment.
The recent misconduct also seems to be part of a pattern at the steelmaker.
Last year one of its units falsified data on tests for tensile strength of some stainless steel wire for springs over a period of more than nine years.
The company violated political funding rules in 2009 leading to the resignation of its chairman and CEO.
A year earlier one of its units was found to have shipped steel products without proper testing and three years before that a Kobe Steel mill was caught putting out false environmental data on soot emissions.
Back in 1999, Kobe was found to have paid funds to a corporate racketeer, known as "sokaiya" in Japanese, a common transgression in corporate Japan at the time.
(Reporting by Yuka Obayashi, Hideyuki Sano and Maki Shiraki; Writing by Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Stephen Coates, Shri Navaratnam and David Evans)