MILAN — Fiat Chrysler Automobiles reduced its debt by more than expected in the first quarter, putting the carmaker well on course to become cash positive later this year.
Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne expects to cancel all debt during 2018 — possibly by the end of June — and generate around 4 billion euros ($5 billion) in net cash by the end of the year.
Marchionne has said that forecast does not include any one-off measures, nor the impact of the planned spinoff of parts maker Magneti Marelli, which he hopes to execute by early 2019.
The world's seventh-largest carmaker said on Thursday net debt had fallen to 1.3 billion euros ($1.6 billion) by the end of March, well below a consensus forecast of 2.6 billion euros in a Thomson Reuters poll of analysts.
FCA said capital spending fell 900 million euros in the quarter due to "program timing," which analysts said implied higher investments for the rest of the year.
The Italian-American group said first-quarter operating profit rose 5 percent to 1.61 billion euros, below a consensus forecast of 1.74 billion, as a weaker performance from its North American profit center weighed.
Shipments there were higher due to the new Jeep Wrangler and Compass models. But currency moves hit revenues and earnings, and costs related to new product launches added to the pressure.
FCA's shift to sell more trucks and SUVs boosted margins yet again in North America to 7.4 percent from 7.3 percent in the same quarter a year ago, although they were down from the 8 percent recorded in the preceding three months.
Marchionne, preparing to hand over to an internal successor next year, is close to his goal of ending a margin gap with larger U.S. rivals General Motors and Ford.
The 65-year-old has said becoming debt free and being able to compete on a par with U.S. peers would mean FCA no longer needed a partner to survive and could well succeed on its own.
The CEO has previously said tying up with another carmaker would help to meet the huge costs in an industry investing in electric vehicles and automated driving.
FCA shares fell immediately after the results, but recovered to trade up 3 percent at 19.71 euros by 1150 GMT, outperforming a 0.4 percent rise in Europe's blue-chip stock index.
($1 = 0.8214 euros)
Reporting by Agnieszka Flak