* Q4 sales 22.197 bln euros, up 3.2 pct like-for-like
* French hypermarkets up 1.4 pct vs 3 pct growth in Q3
* Spain back to growth in Q4, first time since 2008
* Carrefour shares down 3.1 pct, stock rose 49 pct in 2013 (Recasts with share reaction, CFO and analyst comments)
By Dominique Vidalon
PARIS, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Carrefour, the world’s second-biggest retailer, said sales growth slowed in Brazil and turned negative in China in the final three months of last year, dealing it a blow in the two major emerging markets it has earmarked for expansion.
Shares in the French firm fell nearly 4 percent on Thursday, after it also reported a slower improvement at domestic hypermarkets than in the previous quarter, though it hailed a return to growth in Spain for the first time in five years.
“Very mixed results,” Bernstein analysts said. However, commentators were reassured that Europe’s No.1 retailer remained comfortable with the consensus forecast for 2013 earnings before interest and taxes of 2.19 billion euros ($2.98 billion).
Carrefour is battling to reverse years of underperformance in Europe, where it makes about 65 percent of its sales. Its problems are partly due to a reliance on the hypermarket format it pioneered as time-pressed customers shop more locally and online, and buy non-food goods from specialists.
Chief Executive Georges Plassat has had some success in the group’s home market of France by cutting costs, revamping stores, improving price competitiveness, simplifying product offerings and giving more autonomy to store managers.
He has also highlighted Brazil, the firm’s second-biggest market behind France, and China as key markets for expansion.
But Carrefour said sales at Chinese stores open over a year fell 3.1 percent in the fourth quarter compared with a 1.1 percent rise in the third - joining a string of consumer groups reporting a slowdown in the world’s second-biggest economy.
Cosmetics group L‘Oreal recently said it would pull its Garnier brand out of mainland China, while Revlon said it would exit due to falling sales.
Carrefour also said like-for-like sales growth in Brazil slowed to 5.8 percent against 8.8 percent in the third quarter.
Nevertheless, it pledged to push ahead with expansion plans in South America’s largest economy, and notably seek to accelerate store openings at its Atacadao cash & carry format.
Finance chief Pierre-Jean Sivignon reiterated an initial public offering was an option among others to fund expansion in Brazil.
“THE RIGHT DIRECTION”
Carrefour, world No.2 behind U.S. group Wal-Mart, said fourth-quarter sales as a whole totalled 22.2 billion euros, for like-for-like growth of 3.2 percent excluding fuel and calendar effects.
Retailers across Europe have been struggling as shoppers’ disposable income is squeezed by subdued wages growth and austerity measures, and Carrefour’s overall performance compared favourably with some of its peers.
Smaller French rival Casino said on Tuesday it expected sales at its domestic hypermarkets would return to growth in the next six months, while Dutch grocer Ahold on Thursday reported a steeper-than-expected decline in fourth-quarter sales.
German retailer Metro AG, meanwhile, posted a drop in sales in its fiscal first quarter.
“Despite today’s relatively weak trends, we still think the recovery in France is on track and the group appears to be taking appropriate measures in other countries in particular Italy to improve operations, margins and returns,” Societe Generale analysts said of Carrefour’s performance.
“The group is undoubtedly moving in the right direction but there is still a lot to be done and the stock appears fully valued in the short-term,” they added.
Carrefour shares trade at 17.2 times 12-month forward earnings against 14.9 for Casino and 10.9 times for Britain’s Tesco. At 1210 GMT, Carrefour stock was down 3.1 percent at 27.42 euros. It surged 49 percent in 2013.
In France, which accounts for over 40 percent of group revenues, same-store sales at Carrefour’s hypermarkets rose 1.4 percent compared with a 3 percent increase in the third quarter.
Sivignon said this was the third consecutive quarter of growth for French hypermarkets and the fifth for food in hypermarkets where price perception was improving. November was a particularly strong month, he added.
In Spain, Carrefour’s third-largest market, sales rose 0.2 percent like-for-like. Food sales were flat while non-food sales were positive, supported by a Christmas bonus to civil servants being paid this year after having been suspended in 2012.
Sivignon said he wanted to wait another quarter before calling the improved performance in Spain a trend.
But the economic climate was still tough in Italy where sales fell 5.9 percent, and it would take a few quarters before action plans such as promotions would bear fruit, he said.
$1 = 0.7356 euros Editing by James Regan and Mark Potter