The global automotive depression has finally reached all the way to the top — to Japan’s Toyota Motor Corporation, which on Monday said it now expects to lose money in its automotive operations. This will be the first such loss in 70 years.

Toyota, like its Japanese counterparts, has been staggered by the yen’s stunning appreciation against the U.S. dollar — which makes Japanese exports more expensive overseas — as well as plunging vehicle sales in North America and other major export markets.

For the fiscal year that ends March 31, Toyota still expects to eke out a modest profit of $555 million, which looks pretty good in comparison to the billions of dollars of losses incurred already this year by Detroit’s beleaguered automakers.

But the world’s largest vehicle manufacturer by sales volume and market value said it now expects to post a fiscal-year operating loss of nearly $1.7 billion, a dramatic turnaround from the $13.9 billion operating profit Toyota had forecast earlier this year and revised operating profit of $6.7 billion that it released in November. Media reports in Japan said it would be the first operating loss since just after the firm was founded in 1937.

Executives also said total revenues for the fiscal year now are expected to fall about 18 percent, to around $239 billion, revised downward from the earlier projection of $256 billion.
The company is facing a crisis of critical proportions after basking in eight consecutive years of record profits. In fiscal 2008, which ended last March 31, Toyota posted an operating profit of $25.3 billion and a group net profit of $19.1 billion.

In announcing the automaker’s second downward financial revision in six weeks, a clearly shaken Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe said: “It’s a kind of emergency that we’ve never experienced before…. It’s not yet possible to tell where the market’s bottom will be.”

Watanabe also dramatically lowered the company’s vehicle sales forecast. For calendar-year 2008, Toyota now expects that global group sales, including those of Daihatsu and Hino, will drop more than 4 percent, to 8.96 million vehicles, from 9.37 million in 2007. Before the current crunch, Toyota earlier this year had forecast that sales would climb to 9.85 million units in 2008.

At the company’s year-end press conference, Toyota said it is taking a wide variety of measures to slash operating costs, from canceling directors’ bonuses to unplugging the electric hand dryers at the company’s Nagoya headquarters. Toyota last week said it is delaying construction on the new Prius assembly plant in Mississippi.