UPDATE 2-Slow Asia economy weighs on Starwood Hotels forecast
* Fourth-quarter revenue $1.51 bln vs est. $1.53 bln
* Adjusted earnings $0.73/share vs est. $0.70
* RevPAR from Asia, excluding China, falls 3 pct
* Expects first-quarter earnings $0.53-$0.56/share
* Shares fall as much as 5 pct
By Sagarika Jaisinghani
Feb 13 (Reuters) - Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc forecast first-quarter revenue below analysts' estimates, mainly due to a slow Asian economy and a strong U.S. dollar.
Starwood's shares fell as much as 5 percent after the owner of the Sheraton and Westin hotel chains also reported a drop in fourth-quarter revenue and did not say if it had bought back shares in January.
An austerity drive by China's government and slow economic activity in the rest of Asia are weighing on U.S. hoteliers' results.
Protests in Thailand "significantly" hurt Starwood's business in January, while the company's performance in India was weak and will likely stay that way until after the general elections later this year, Chief Financial Officer Vasant Prabhu said on a conference call.
A severe winter in the United States that delayed travel and a slight dip in consumer sentiment in January are also expected to hit hotel operators in the current quarter.
Starwood, however, said its revenue per available room (RevPAR) rose almost 8 percent at company-operated hotels in North America in January.
RevPAR is a metric of hotel health, calculated by multiplying a hotel's average daily room rate by its occupancy rate.
Hyatt Hotels Corp is scheduled to report results on Friday, while Marriott International Inc and Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc are expected to report over the next few weeks.
Online travel agency Orbitz Worldwide Inc forecast current-quarter revenue below analysts' estimates on Thursday.
JP Morgan analyst Joseph Greff said that Starwood was also slowing down the pace of its share buybacks.
The company bought back $78.6 million in shares in the fourth quarter ended Dec. 31, and Greff estimated that $2.7 million of that was repurchased between Oct. 24 and the end of 2013.
"The real disappointment is in the lack of buybacks in the (fourth quarter)," Greff said.
Starwood returned more than $500 million to shareholders in 2013 through stock buybacks and dividends, roughly similar to 2012. In contrast, Marriott returned over $1.3 billion to shareholders in 2012.
Starwood forecast first-quarter profit of 53-56 cents per share on Thursday, well below the average analyst estimate of 63 cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
"There is limited visibility across the lodging business and as such, we believe conservative guidance at this point is prudent," MLV & Co analyst Ryan Meliker wrote in a note.
Starwood posted a 3 percent fall in fourth-quarter RevPAR from hotels open at least one year in Asia, excluding China.
Excluding the impact of foreign exchange rates, RevPAR rose 8 percent in Asia, excluding China, Chief Executive Frits van Paasschen said.
Starwood's total revenue fell 1.8 percent to $1.51 billion in the quarter, missing the average analyst estimate of $1.53 billion.
The company's net income fell to $128 million, or 67 cents per share, from $142 million, or 72 cents per share, a year earlier.
Excluding items, Starwood earned 73 cents per share, above the 70 cents per share analysts had expected.
The company's shares were down 2.4 percent at $75.23 on Thursday afternoon on the New York Stock Exchange.
The stock has gained about 21 percent in the past 12 months, in line with the Dow Jones U.S. Hotels index.
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