* Lindt & Spruengli 2009 sales 2.5 bln Sfr
* Forecast was 2.6 bln Sfr
* Expects economic environment to pick up later in 2010 * Shares fall 1.7 pct
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ZURICH, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Chocolate maker Lindt & Spruengli (LISP.S) LISN.N expects 2009 operating profit to be at the low end of its guidance, but sees the economic environment improving gradually in the second half this year.
The Swiss confectioner said on Tuesday commodity markets would likely continue to be challenging and that 2009 sales hit 2.5 billion Swiss francs ($2.5 billion), just below forecasts.
"The outlook statement was not positive, and they seem to be suggesting they won't be able to increase prices much to offset higher cocoa prices, and that's obviously going to put a bit of pressure on their margin," Kepler Capital Markets analyst Jon Cox said.
The economic downturn has dented appetite for Lindt's pricey confections and margins are under pressure due to high cocoa prices LCCc2. It has warned it would be tough to meet its 2010 profit goal. [ID:nLT342508]
Shares fell 0.53 percent to 2,237 francs by 0833 GMT, underperforming a near flat DJ Stoxx European food and beverage index .SX3P.
The group, known for its gold-wrapped Easter bunnies, also said 2009 operating profit would be at the lower end of the range announced last spring of 260-280 million francs.
Lindt's rivals are also suffering and last week Barry Callebaut, the world's largest chocolate maker, cut its mid-term growth goals due to lower consumption globally and the pressure of high cocoa prices. [ID:nLB21488]
Lindt, which traces its origins to a Zurich shop in the 1840s, trades at about 21 times forecast 2010 earnings, a premium to larger Barry Callebaut (BARN.S).
Its shares jumped last year on takeover speculation after Kraft KFT.N's bid for Britain's Cadbury CBRY.L was first announced, with Nestle (NESN.VX) cited as a possible buyer. But Lindt dismissed the talk and Nestle has said it was only interested in confectionery bolt-on buys, not big brands.
Cox described the Kraft-Cadbury deal as a double-edged sword for Lindt.
"The multiple that Kraft is paying for Cadbury doesn't look too expensive, that would put pressure on Lindt because it has a high multiple," he said.
"On the other hand, Kraft-Cadbury may drop the ball in terms of trying to drive sales this year (due to the merger), that may actually benefit Lindt." [ID:nLDE60I03R] [ID:nL9294700]
Cox also said Lindt's sales could recover more quickly than anticipated but that its focus on Europe and the United States could prove difficult.
"It doesn't have the emerging market exposure and obviously that's where the confectionery is growing the fastest," he said.
Analysts polled by Reuters had expected 2009 sales to drop 12.9 percent to 2.6 billion Swiss francs. [ID:nLDE60C1RJ] (Editing by Sharon Lindores) ($1=1.026 Swiss franc)