Ford is reducing its stake in Japanese automaker Mazda to 3.5 percent from 11 percent, giving up the position of top stakeholder it has held for 31 years.
But both Mazda Motor Corp. and Ford Motor Co. said Thursday their partnership will continue in developing cars together and sharing technology. The stake being sold is worth about 31 billion yen ($372 million) based on Mazda's current share price.
The announcement marks a critical shift in a longtime U.S.-Japan auto alliance that saved a money-losing Mazda from near-bankruptcy. When Ford invested in Mazda in 1979 it was heralded as a symbol of a globalizing Japanese auto industry.
Ford said it wants to expand in fast-growing emerging markets while remaining "committed to its strategic partnership with Mazda."
They will continue to cooperate in areas such as joint ventures and technology exchange, Ford said. The transaction will be completed Friday, it said.
Mazda President and Chief Executive Takashi Yamanouchi also said the partnership remains intact, stressing areas where both sides could still benefit.
Mazda and Ford share basic parts for autos called platforms, and have joint production plants in Asia and other regions.
Yamanouchi has in the past denied that Mazda was thinking about tie-ups with other automakers.
Mazda, whose models include the Miata roadster and RX-8 sportscar, is a relatively small player in the intensely competitive auto industry, producing 1.2 million vehicles a year.
It is also unique in that it exports about 80 percent of the cars it produces in Japan and has been battered by the surging yen. Other Japanese automakers have moved production abroad to evade damage from a stronger yen, which makes Japan's exports more expensive.
Without a bigger partner, Hiroshima-based Mazda could fall behind even more in green technology such as hybrids and electric cars. It buys hybrid systems from Toyota Motor Corp., the world's biggest automaker.
But it could thrive as a niche player with its reputation for producing quality cars at an affordable price, says Mamoru Katou, auto analyst with Tokai Tokyo Research.
Ford has reduced its stake over several years and so the latest move does not mean a big change for Mazda.
"Their cooperative relations will continue. It would have been a different matter if Mazda were getting another automaker as a major stakeholder," he said.
Ford has been on a roll lately, boosting market share in the U.S. as Toyota stumbled over safety lapses, and racking up booming sales in China.
Mazda did not specify which companies were buying the shares from Ford, based in Dearborn, Michigan. But it said the buyers will be companies with which it does business.
Japanese media reports have said Mitsui Sumitomo Bank, already a major investor in Mazda, will be among the buyers as will Japanese trading conglomerate Itochu Corp.
The biggest shareholder in Mazda after Ford is Chase Manhattan, which owns 7 percent.
It is unclear if a single Japanese company will own as much as Chase Manhattan after the deal is completed. That may be unlikely given that as many as 10 Japanese companies have been mentioned as potential buyers.
Other potential buyers include Sumitomo Corp., another trading company, Japanese construction company Kajima Corp., and Sumitomo Metal Industries, a steel manufacturer in the Sumitomo group of companies.
Ford became Mazda's biggest shareholder in 1979 when the Japanese car maker was near collapse.
Ford raised its stake to 33.4 percent in 1996, but reduced that to 13 percent in 2008. It has since declined to about 11 percent because Mazda issued shares.
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