UPDATE 2-Lindt sees luxury chocolate demand outweighing cocoa costs
* Net profit up 23.7 pct to 303 mln Sfr
* In line with 306 mln Sfr forecast in poll
* Confirms long-term growth target
* Shares down 2.4 pct after strong run
By Silke Koltrowitz
ZURICH, March 11 (Reuters) - Growing demand for luxury chocolates in Europe and increasingly the Americas and Asia should help Lindt & Spruengli to grow sales and profit margins this year, despite high cocoa prices, it said on Tuesday.
The Swiss maker of Lindor chocolate balls and gold foil- wrapped chocolate bunnies posted a 23.7 percent rise in 2013 net profit, and confirmed its long-term goals for 6-8 percent sales growth and a 20-40 basis point improvement in operating margin.
Chocolate makers saw sluggish growth last year, but Lindt fared better than many thanks to consumer demand for affordable luxuries, which helped it to gain market share in its main region of Europe and grow rapidly elsewhere.
Barry Callebaut, the world's biggest chocolate supplier, said in January that sales of gourmet chocolates were fuelling a pick up in demand for chocolate.
"Lindt stands out from staples peers as being able to drive high single-digit growth from the developed markets compared with peers 0-1 percent rate," Credit Suisse analysts said.
Lindt predicted a slow economic recovery this year, with high raw material costs and pressure from retailers to keep prices low posing challenges.
Chief Finance Officer Dieter Weisskopf said that, with a looming cocoa bean deficit in 2013/14, prices for cocoa beans were likely to stay high, but it was difficult to make any forecasts. "They could stabilise at current levels, but that depends on many factors. There are huge speculative positions."
ICE May cocoa futures have risen more than 10 percent this year, hitting a 2-1/2-year high last month.
Executive Chairman Ernst Tanner said tensions between Russia and Ukraine were not having any impact on Lindt's business at the moment. Russia is the world's second-biggest chocolate market. It is still relatively small for Lindt, though the firm was exposed to sudden drops in the Russian rouble, Tanner said.
The Swiss group said it had set up a subsidiary in South America via a joint venture with Brazilian chocolate maker CRM Group, as it continues to expand in emerging markets.
Lindt said its net profit rose 23.7 percent - or 11.4 percent on a like-for-like basis - to 303 million Swiss francs ($345 million) last year, in line with analyst expectations.
Its operating margin climbed to 14.0 percent, a comparable improvement of 40 basis points.
In January, Lindt posted an 8.6 percent rise in underlying sales for 2013 on the back of double-digit growth in North America, where it is expanding from a low base.
Sales in North America should top $1 billion this year, North America head Andreas Pfluger told a media conference.
By comparison, Mondelez International posted a 3.9 percent rise in underlying sales in 2013, while sales at Nestle's confectionery business were up 5 percent.
At 1400 GMT, Lindt shares were down 2.4 percent, lagging the European food sector index and handing back some of their recent strong gains. The stock had risen more than 10 percent this year, after a 35 percent surge in 2013.
"(Lindt) is clearly a step above pretty much any other food company in terms of performance - however, it is also priced well above anything else in the space," Kepler Cheuvreux analyst Jon Cox said, confirming his "hold" rating on the stock.
Lindt shares are trading at almost 30 times forward earnings, well above Barry Callebaut's 20 times.
Lindt said its share buyback programme, initiated in the autumn, would be completed by the end of 2014. It proposed a 13 percent increase in its dividend to 65 francs per participation certificate and 650 francs per registered share.