UPDATE 2-Pernod Ricard sales hit by China slowdown

Thu Aug 29, 2013 8:42am EDT

* Full-year profit from recurring operations rises 6 pct

* Organic sales up 3.9 pct, below some analysts' estimate

* Signs of stabilisation in Europe-CEO

* Mid-sized acquisitions possible-CEO (Recasts with analysts comments, expectations, share price; Changes headline)

By Lionel Laurent

PARIS, Aug 29 (Reuters) - French alcoholic drinks maker Pernod Ricard reported annual sales growth slightly below some analysts' expectations, hit by persistent weakness in China.

The world's second-biggest spirits group after Britain's Diageo relies on Asia for about 40 percent of sales. Like its rivals, it has been hurt by a government clampdown on luxury gifts in China, in addition to the slowdown in economic growth in the country.

However, buoyant demand from other Asian markets such as Malaysia and India - as well as "significant" price hikes - helped the owner of Mumm champagne and Absolut Vodka grow net profit by 4 percent to 1.2 billion euros.

Organic profit, which excludes the impact of acquisitions and divestitures, rose 6 percent to 2.2 billion euros, squarely hitting Pernod's target for the fiscal year ended in June.

Net sales for the year rose 4 percent to 8.58 billion euros. Organic sales rose 3.9 percent, which was a shade below the 4.1 percent expected by analysts, according to Investec.

"The problem remains Asia, and particularly China, where growth slowed materially in the fourth quarter," said Investec analyst Martin Deboo in a research note.

Pernod shares were down 2.1 percent to 88.76 euros at 1234 GMT - the second-biggest faller on France's CAC 40 blue-chip index, which was up 0.5 percent.

And the uncertainty in China may continue to weigh on the shares in the short term, according to Citigroup analysts.

"We are less optimistic about the long-term prospects for China," Citi said in a note. Sales for the year rose 9 percent in China, though that was lower than the previous year.

Still, Pernod expects its geographic diversity to help it in the new year.

"There will no doubt be less dynamic growth from emerging markets (this year)... But the U.S. market remains very robust and there are some signs of stabilisation in Europe," Chief Executive Pierre Pringuet told Reuters.

"We remain confident in our ability to pursue our growth."

The company also raised its dividend by 4 percent to 1.64 euros ($2.19).

Pernod Ricard has over the past four decades outgrown its origins as a maker of French aniseed-flavoured liqueur and built up an international empire of brands including Ballantine's scotch and Beefeater gin.

Since spending 5.6 billion euros on buying Absolut Vodka parent V&S in 2008, the company has been cutting debt and selling assets and is now in a position to make medium-sized acquisitions even as it seeks to protect its credit rating, its CEO told Reuters.

"Medium-sized acquisitions are entirely feasible for us ... in the hundreds of millions of euros up to 1 billion," Pringuet said.

Although not all of Pernod's flagship brands have resisted the past year's economic slowdown in Europe, with volumes of Ricard and Ballantine's down 11 percent and 4 percent respectively, several products including Absolut and Jameson hit all-time volume highs in 2012/2013. ($1 = 0.7496 euros) (Additional reporting by Martinne Geller in London; Editing by James Regan and Pravin Char)

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