Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn has said he expects the carmaker’s operating margin to return to pre-crisis levels of around 6-7% as soon as China, Russia and other emerging markets contribute more to its earnings.

This week Nissan announced a vastly improved balance sheet and a return to the black for the year ended 31 March but offered what analysts considered a conservative outlook for the next 12 months.

Assuming a stronger yen against both the dollar and euro – at JPY90 and JPY120, respectively – Nissan forecast an operating profit of JPY350bn (US$3.75bn) for the fiscal year ending March 2011, for a profit margin of 4.3%.

That is down from a peak of 11-12% several years ago, but Ghosn said this was “not so bad” considering the depressed US market and unfavourable exchange rates last year.

He added: “I think the Japanese makers will come back to a high level of profit no matter what happens in the US because part of their profit will be coming from China, Russia, India and South America.

“Particularly for Nissan, the potential for profit in the midterm is big. Last year we were at 4% (operating margin) with the US market at 10.7m cars and the yen at 93 (to the dollar.) You can make a quick calculation that 6% or 7% is not something that is really very far in the horizon.”

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Ghosn stressed, however, that uncertainty over raw materials prices and vehicle pricing made it impossible to say whether Nissan’s annual forecast was too cautious.

In the medium to longer term, Ghosn said he was optimistic about Nissan’s growth in emerging markets as well as the electric car segment.

Including light commercial vehicles, Nissan is now the best-selling Japanese brand in China and Ghosn said sales are restricted only by insufficient production capacity, adding that the carmaker may consider an increase.

Nissan’s local joint venture with the Dongfeng Motor has already announced plans to expand annual capacity to 1m vehicles a year by 2012, up from 670,000 units now. Ghosn said he would gauge the Chinese market’s growth this year before making any decisions on additional capacity.

Nissan has forecast an 8% rise in global sales to 3.8m vehicles this financial year.

Following its financial results for fiscal year 2009/2010 Nissan was able to make a positive contribution to alliance partner Renault’s first-half 2010 income, estimated at EUR70m (US$88.8m).