Toyota joint battery venture with Panasonic

Toyota is making arrangements to raise its stake in Panasonic Ekectric Vehicles Energy Co. from 60 percent at present to over 80 percent by purchasing the new shares that will be allotted to its group firms, the sources said.

Panasonic, which owns a 40 percent stake in the joint venture, has already been asked by antitrust authorities in China to reduce its stake in order to turn Sanyo Electric Co., the world’s top supplier of lithium ion batteries, into a subsidiary.

By allotting the new shares to the Toyota group, the two companies are aiming to avoid any risk of their battery technology being leaked.

Panasonic Corp.’s $4.6 billion purchase of Sanyo Electric Co. may spur a wave of takeovers of rival electric-car battery makers as automakers seek to avoid depending on a limited pool of suppliers, analysts said.

Panasonic bought 50.2 percent of Sanyo a year after announcing its plans. The acquisition gives the electronics maker a controlling stake in the world’s biggest maker of lithium-ion batteries, strengthening its position in a market that the company forecasts will grow more than fivefold to 3.2 trillion yen ($36 billion) by 2018.

Batteries will become a key component for companies such as Toyota Motor Corp. and “automakers may move to absorb companies that produce those key devices,” said Mitsushige Akino, who oversees the equivalent of $450 million in assets in Tokyo at Ichiyoshi Investment Management Co. “We may see the auto and electronics industries fuse.”

Sanyo gives Panasonic access to Volkswagen AG, Ford Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. as customers. Osaka-based Panasonic plans to invest 123 billion yen by 2011 to triple its capacity to produce lithium-ion cells, favored by some carmakers because they are lighter and more powerful than ones made of nickel- metal hydride.

The development of new energy technology for electric vehicles may give Panasonic and Sanyo more bargaining power over carmakers.

Sanyo was the largest maker of rechargeable batteries last fiscal year, followed by Sony Corp., South Korea’s Samsung SDI Co., Panasonic, China’s BYD Co. and LG Chem Ltd., according to Tokyo-based researcher Japan Economic Center Co. Panasonic and Sanyo accounted for a combined 43 percent of the market.

Electric cars may account for 10 percent of global vehicle demand by 2020 if oil remains above $70 a barrel, according to Nissan Motor Co. Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn. To meet that demand, automakers are either forging alliances with electronics companies or investing in their own battery-making operations.

GS Yuasa Corp., based in Kyoto, Japan, has a battery-making venture with Honda and Mitsubishi Motor Corp., while Johnson Controls Inc. and France’s Saft Groupe SA will supply batteries to Ford and General Motors Co. GS has gained 21 percent this year, valuing the company at $3 billion while Saft Groupe has risen 90 percent, valuing it at $1.2 billion.

“Collaboration between a battery maker and a carmaker is an efficient way to develop car batteries,” said Akemi Ando, a Honda spokeswoman.

Sony’s in talks to supply several companies with lithium- ion car batteries, Executive Deputy President Hiroshi Yoshioka told reporters last month. It plans to spend 100 billion yen researching and developing rechargeable batteries, he said then.

China’s BYD Co., the Shenzhen-based battery producer backed by billionaire Warren Buffett, agreed in May to explore cooperation with Volkswagen in areas including hybrid cars and lithium-battery-powered vehicles.

Panasonic EV Energy is currently in full operation as it scrambles to produce nickel metal hydride batteries for Toyota’s best-selling Prius hybrid.

About 70 percent of the cost of building an electric vehicle will probably come from electrical parts, making battery development of key interest to automakers. Nissan said it plans to invest 160 million euros ($236 million) in a plant in Aveiro, Portugal, that will start producing electric car batteries in 2012 and Toyota last year opened a research department in Shizuoka prefecture to study battery cells.

Panasonic last year agreed to buy the controlling stake from Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Daiwa Securities Group Inc. and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group Inc., which bailed out Sanyo in 2006. Panasonic and Sanyo, after a year clearing antitrust regulators in the U.S., Europe, Japan and China, now plan to focus on competing against rivals worldwide.