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Sharp ponders options to survive, isn't in Intel talks

The Sharp Corp logo is seen at the company's showroom in Tokyo January 10, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer
The Sharp Corp logo is seen at the company's showroom in Tokyo January 10, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer

By Tim Kelly

LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Sharp Corp is considering new ways to shore up its crumbling finances but is not talking with Intel Corp at the moment about any investment from the U.S. chipmaker, a senior executive from the Japanese company said on Monday.

Industry analysts had speculated that Intel and Sharp - which supplies screens to Apple Inc for its latest iPhone - were in investment discussions, but executives said on Monday the pair were not in talks "at this moment."

Sharp is fighting for survival after years of losses. Like other Japanese brands that spearheaded the 1970s electronics boom, it is wilting under stiffening competition and a strong yen. In November, it said it may not be able to survive on its own after full-year net losses to doubled to $5.6 billion.

To repay short-term debt and stave off failure, the maker of Aquos televisions snagged a $4.4 billion bailout in October from its banks. But it is now exploring further options.

"Our finances have been weakened considerably and we are considering ways to deal with that," Sharp Vice President Kozo Takahashi told reporters at a roundtable briefing on the sidelines of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Sharp's shareholder-equity ratio at the end of September was 9.9 percent - half the minimum level generally considered stable by investors. Takahashi described that only as "low."

Takahashi's comments on Monday indicated that no new agreement was imminent. He did not elaborate on Sharp's funding options, except to say that any future cash injections might not be limited to just share offers.

SUNSET

Japan's largest electronics companies have in past decades gradually ceded their market lead to lower-cost rivals from China and Korea, like Samsung Electronics. They are shedding thousands of jobs, hiving off non-essential businesses and otherwise battling to secure long-term financing.

Unlike local rivals Sony Corp and Panasonic Corp, Sharp faces limited financing alternatives because it had to mortgage nearly all of its Japanese factories and offices to secure last year's bailout. It has much less scope to sell assets to underpin its finances, making partnerships with other companies likelier.

In December, Qualcomm Inc agreed to invest as much as $120 million in Sharp. As part of that agreement, Qualcomm will work with Sharp to develop new, power-saving screens based on Sharp's IGZO technology.

Qualcomm made an initial investment of 4.93 billion yen ($56.20 million) at the end of the year in a private placement of stock, giving the U.S. company a 2.64 percent stake after dilution. The timing and amount of the remaining investment will be conditional on Sharp's returning to profit in the six months ending March 31.

Sharp has also been in talks for months with Hon Hai Precision Industry Co Ltd, with an eye to making the Taiwanese company a major shareholder. Talks, however, stalled after Hon Hai said it expected a say in management in return.

Current discussions with the Taiwanese company do not cover any partnership in small LCD displays, Takahashi said, such as those for cellphones. Hon Hai already owns a third of Sharp's 10th-generation large-LCD plant in Sakai, in western Japan, dubbed the most advanced display factory in the world.

Sharp may sell its TV assembly plant in Mexico to Hon Hai; talks to sell the Taiwanese company another factory in China have frozen, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters in December.

(Editing by Edwin Chan and Steve Orlofsky)

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