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By Hyunjoo Jin
SEOUL (Reuters) - Hyundai Motor will report its lowest profit growth since it switched accounting rules in 2011, as record car sales are dented by the impact of a stronger local currency and the cost of compensating drivers in North America for overstated fuel-economy claims.
The South Korean automaker, ranked fifth in global sales with affiliate Kia Motors, is expected to outperform the market this year in increasing vehicle sales, but a run of stellar profit growth looks set to end as currency shifts favour Japanese rivals.
Hyundai will likely say later on Thursday that October-December net profit rose 7.5 percent to 2.15 trillion won, according to a Reuters poll of 15 analysts.
"Hyundai Motor will no longer enjoy a growth-stock premium, with its earnings growth seen decelerating," said Kim Sung-tai, a fund manager at Phoenix Asset, which owns Hyundai stock. "The won is appreciating and Japanese and U.S. rivals are normalising into the levels before the global financial crisis."
Hyundai has relied on affordable cars to drive up sales in Europe and elsewhere, but its dominance at home - where it and Kia have 80 percent market share - is under threat from German and Japanese imports.
"Hyundai's January-March profit will fall because of currencies and increased marketing costs, as its cars are ageing and rivals have launched new models at competitive prices," said Cho Soo-hong, an analyst at Woori Investment & Securities. That projected profit fall would be Hyundai's first since it moved to consolidated reporting to reflect earnings at its affiliates.
Analysts have cut their target share prices and earnings estimates for Hyundai as the won has strengthened, with 19 of 26 net profit estimates revised in the past 30 days, dragging down the average estimate by 10 percent, according to Thomson Reuters StarMine.
Hyundai and Kia shares have been the worst performers among major global automakers for the past three months - down 5 percent and 18 percent, respectively, while Toyota Motor <7203.T> shares gained more than a third.
Hyundai is the first of Asia's big automakers to report fourth-quarter earnings, with Honda Motor due on January 31 and Toyota on February 5.
Hyundai's fourth-quarter earnings could include $100 million set aside to cover the cost of compensating customers for overstated fuel-economy claims on some cars sold recently in the United States and Canada. Hyundai and Kia said they would help drivers pay for the additional fuel costs.
As the Korean won has strengthened - up almost 8 percent against the dollar last year, its biggest percentage gain since 2009 - the yen has eased by 11 percent, handing the advantage back to Japanese rivals. A stronger won crimps exporters' earnings when repatriated and hurts price competitiveness in overseas markets.
Investors worry the currency shifts could prompt Japanese automakers to increase sales incentives, forcing Hyundai and others to follow suit.
"Korean and Japanese currencies are going in opposite directions, which will be unfavorable to South Korean car makers," said Baek Jae-yeol, a fund manager at Korea Investment Management.
While South Korea's free trade deals with Europe and the United States have helped boost Hyundai and Kia sales in those markets, they are being squeezed at home.
Hyundai cut its domestic prices of the mid-sized Sonata and large models such as the Genesis for the first time early this year, seeking to fend off competition from imported brands.
That home market has provided the revenue firepower for Hyundai and Kia to shift mid-priced models overseas. South Korea accounted for 15 percent of Hyundai's sales in January-September, its third biggest market after China and the U.S.
Investors are also concerned Hyundai could lose production as it plans to scrap overnight work at Korean factories from March. Kia, which produced 59 percent of its vehicles at home, compared with Hyundai's 43 percent, will be harder hit by the new shift system, analysts said.
Hyundai aims to increase global sales by 6 percent to 4.66 million vehicles this year, boosted by new plants in China and Brazil. That volume increase would be the lowest since 2007 but would still top the overall industry's projected 3.6 percent rise and Toyota's 2.2 percent growth plan.
In China, Hyundai's third plant helped it increase output just as Japanese rivals reeled from a sales slump as a territorial row stoked anti-Japanese sentiment in September. Hyundai's China sales jumped 16 percent last year, giving it a 6.7 percent share of the world's biggest autos market.
In Europe, Hyundai lagged its own bullish sales target, but outperformed the shrinking market with a 9 percent rise in sales and a record 3.5 percent market share, according to European Automobile Manufacturers' Association data.
In the United States, Hyundai increased sales by 9 percent last year, underperforming the market's 13 percent rise according to Automotive News data, and saw its market share dip - to 4.9 percent from 5.1 percent in 2011 - for the first time in more than a decade.
(Additional reporting by Eunhye Shin and Daum Kim; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)