UPDATE 3-AB InBev sees higher Brazil sales, U.S. margin recovery

Wed Feb 27, 2013 8:11am EST

* Q4 core profit up 9.9 pct at $4.39 bln; forecast $4.4 bln

* 2012 dividend up nearly 30 pct at 1.7 euros

* Sees moderation in costs helping U.S. margins

* Shares up 1.1 percent

By Philip Blenkinsop

BRUSSELS, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world's biggest brewer, forecast a pick up in sales in Brazil and easing cost pressures in the United States would help it bounce back from a slow start to the year in its two largest markets.

The maker of Budweiser and Stella Artois makes about 80 percent of revenue in the Americas, shielding it from recession-hit Europe but still giving it a mix of trading conditions with fast-growing emerging markets and a more mature U.S. business.

Underscoring its confidence, AB InBev raised its 2012 dividend by a larger-than-expected 50 cents to 1.7 euros ($2.22) a share, despite plans to pay $20.1 billion for the 50 percent of Mexico's Grupo Modelo it does not already own.

Analysts had expected a dividend of 1.48 euros, according to the Thomson Reuters Starmine SmartEstimate, which weights analysts according to their past record.

The company met forecasts with fourth-quarter earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) of $4.39 billion, up 9.9 percent on a like-for-like basis.

"The positives were the dividend was higher and Brazil was good on both top and bottom line," said Dirk van Vlaanderen, analyst at Jefferies, with a 'buy' rating on the stock.

"In the U.S. they showed revenue growth. I'm confident they will be able to grow margins again. I think the outlook is realistic. It's a tough comparison with strong (product) launches last year."

At 1250 GMT, AB InBev shares were up 1.1 percent, against a flat STOXX Europe 600 food and beverage index.

Brewers across the world are increasingly relying on emerging markets for growth. Dutch group Heineken this month beat expectations for 2012 and said Africa, Asia and the Americas should drive continued volume and revenue growth this year, offsetting a weak Europe.

Denmark's Carlsberg. though, fell short of market expectations, hit by sluggish western European markets and stalled growth in Russia.

A SLOW START

AB InBev said sales in the United States, where it has over half of the market, would be hit by the impact of tax and petrol price rises on consumer spending, as well as a harsher winter than in 2012.

But Chief Executive Carlos Brito was relaxed.

"Gas prices are up and down all the time," he said. "The payroll taxes, history shows the consumers are impacted the first time, then they get used to it, they adjust."

AB InBev also said it expected U.S. profit margins to rise this year, following a contraction in 2012, thanks to easing pressures from costs and investments.

It forecast costs per hectolitre to rise by a mid-single-digit percentage, against a 7.2 percent increase in 2012.

Distribution costs would also increase by a mid-single-digit percentage, less than the 8.9 percent last year caused partly by higher fuel prices and because of the rollout of Bud Light Lime-a-Rita, which was made in only one U.S. plant and so had to be transported further.

That should be three plants by the end of 2013.

In Brazil, where its market share is about two thirds, AB InBev forecast volumes would rise by a low to mid-single-digit percentage.

It said volumes would be soft at the start of the year because of wet weather and an early Carnival period.

Last year, margins in Brazil improved thanks to a combination of higher volumes and prices.

The company's most disappointing region in the fourth quarter was China, where severe cold and a wet winter drove down volumes by 8.1 percent, albeit not as bad as the industry average of 12 percent.

AB InBev said little about its planned purchase of the rest of Modelo, which U.S. antitrust regulators had sought to block in the belief that it would raise U.S. beer prices.

After a revision to the U.S. part of the deal, AB InBev and the U.S. Department of Justice have resumed talks with a stay on litigation until March 19.

By taking over Modelo, which is Mexico's top brewer and owns the successful Corona brand, AB InBev would have leading positions in three of the four beer markets producing the highest profits.

Brito also dismissed a class action lawsuit filed last week by U.S. consumers who argue AB InBev has watered down its beers to boost profits.

"We never play with those kind of things. Quality for us is of the utmost importance."

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