By Yoko Kubota
TOKYO (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> raised its annual profit forecast on Wednesday, closing in on records set before the Lehman crisis as the weaker yen and growing sales in a healthy U.S. market sharply boost earnings.
The world's best-selling carmaker now expects 1.67 trillion yen ($16.95 billion) in net profit for the year ending in March 2014, compared with a previous forecast of 1.48 trillion yen.
That is just short of the record net profit of 1.72 trillion yen Toyota booked in the year ended in March 2008, and compares with an average forecast of 1.79 trillion yen in a Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S survey of 23 analysts.
Toyota, the most export-reliant among Japan's three big carmakers, has benefited the most from a weakening yen that boosts profits both from exports and from converting money made overseas back into yen.
The company also nudged up its North America sales forecast to 2.63 million vehicles from 2.61 million, helping to offset a drop in its Asia sales forecast to 1.64 million from 1.70 million. The global consolidated sales total, excluding China and some other regions, was unchanged at 9.1 million.
Thai sales were especially weak, falling 30 percent in July-September as the market slows down after incentives for first-car buyers ended last year. Thailand is Toyota's fourth-biggest market on a country basis.
"Our basic stance of controlling fixed costs and improving gross profit will not change, but we do need aggressive investment in order to brush up on future technology," Managing Officer Takuo Sasaki told an earnings briefing.
Toyota boosted its annual capital expenditure outlook by 2 percent to 940 billion yen, or around 4 percent of its revenue. It kept its R&D expenses forecast for the year at 900 billion yen.
For the July-September quarter, the world's best-selling carmaker said net profit rose 70 percent to 438.4 billion yen, in line with the average estimate of 441.01 billion yen in a Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S survey of six analysts.
Its quarterly net profit gain outperformed rivals Nissan Motor Co <7201.T>, Japan's second-biggest carmaker, and Honda Motor Co <7267.T>, the third biggest.
Last week, Nissan posted a meager 2 percent quarterly net profit growth as U.S. sales growth underperforms its rivals and due to sluggish sales in some emerging markets, while Honda booked a 46.4 percent rise, boosted by strong U.S. sales.
Toyota's shares ended 0.5 percent higher, compared with a 0.8 percent rise for Tokyo's benchmark Nikkei average <.N225>.
For the year to date, Toyota's shares are up nearly 60 percent, outdistancing a 9 percent rise for Nissan, which was hit hard this week after it cut its full-year profit forecast on Friday, and Honda's 25 percent rise.
Toyota sold the most cars among automakers worldwide in January-September, beating General Motors Co
(Reporting by Yoko Kubota; Editing by Edmund Klamann and Jeremy Laurence)