Malaysia Proton Q3 earnings drop 48 pct

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 24 (Reuters) - Malaysia's Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional Bhd (Proton) reported on Monday a 48 percent drop in third quarter earnings and warned of a tough fourth quarter.

Net profit fell to 196.97 million ringgit ($51.8 million) in the three months that ended December 31 from 378.25 million ringgit in the same period a year earlier.

Proton, Malaysia's leading car maker, attributed the lower profit to a 20 percent drop in sales to 1.92 billion ringgit.

"The current global uncertainties will continue to impact consumer sentiment and this may affect car sales in the remaining quarter," Proton said in its financial statement.

However, for the first three quarters combined, net profit rose 9.3 percent to 831.84 million ringgit, helped by stronger earnings in the first half of the financial year.

Proton appears to be on track to meet analysts' forecasts for an average net profit of 970 million ringgit the full 12 months, according to a poll by Multex Global Estimates.

Proton is Malaysia's top-selling car brand, with around 60 percent of a market protected from foreign brands by import tariffs and discriminatory excise duties.

For the nine months through December, sales volume fell 3.7 percent year-on-year to 169,967 units, Proton said.

The Malaysian Automotive Association, a grouping of auto makers and traders, said it expected growth in new vehicle sales to slow to 3.5 percent in 2003 from 10 percent last year, as a possible war in Iraq, falling used car prices and hopes of lower prices for new cars discourage consumers.

Proton shares were untraded on Monday. They closed at 8.40 ringgit on Friday. ($1 = 3.8 ringgit)