* Earnings of 39 cents a share exceed Wall Street view of 20 cents
* Revenue of $5.05 billion misses Wall Street view of $5.34 billion
* Cuts operating income forecast for 2013
* Targeting productivity improvements in Europe over next 3 years
By Ben Klayman
DETROIT, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co posted a stronger-than-expected quarterly profit on Tuesday but cut its 2013 forecast due to weakness in the European automotive market.
Chief Executive Officer Richard Kramer said Europe's economy continues to worsen, and the top U.S. tire maker lowered its full-year forecast for segment operating income, the combined results of the company's four business units.
"During the fourth quarter, it became increasingly clear that the effects of the European economic crisis will be felt for an extended period of time," Kramer said on a conference call. "We believe there has yet to be a comprehensive and lasting solution to the euro crisis."
Goodyear, which said it would take steps to improve profit margins in Europe, now expects the global tire industry to grow at a slower pace in the near term than previously forecast. It anticipates its full-year tire unit volume for 2013 will grow at a low-single-digit percentage rate from last year.
The company forecast overall 2013 segment operating income of $1.4 billion to $1.5 billion, below its prior outlook of $1.6 billion. It blamed the currency devaluation in Venezuela as well as weakness in Europe.
"The (fourth-quarter) beat was nice, but we have been of the view that the $1.6 billion target was the key benchmark for investors," Morgan Stanley analyst Ravi Shanker said in a research note. "We believe the cut was larger than expected."
The company broke even in the fourth-quarter on results available to common shareholders, compared with a year-earlier profit of $18 million, or 7 cents a share.
Excluding charges for closing a factory in France and other one-time items, Goodyear earned 39 cents a share, almost double the 20 cents analysts polled by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S had expected. Shanker said a lower-than-expected share count added 5 cents to those results.
Sales fell 11 percent to $5.05 billion, below the $5.34 billion analysts had expected. Tire sales volume dropped 7 percent to 40 million, a steeper decline than the 3 percent to 5 percent decrease the company forecast in October.
Segment operating income and profit margins rose in three of the company's four regions in the fourth quarter. However, in Europe, Middle East and Africa, revenue slid 16 percent to $1.6 billion, and segment operating income dropped 57 percent.
Goodyear said that over the next three years it would focus on increasing share in Europe in such premium markets as run-flat and high-performance tires, and boosting sales in the region's emerging markets. It also expects to achieve productivity gains in Europe totaling an additional $75 million to $100 million through such actions as back-office consolidation and increased manufacturing efficiency.
Last month, the Akron, Ohio-based company said it would exit the farm tire business in the Europe, Middle East and Africa region and planned to close the Amiens North plant in France, which makes consumer and farm tires.
When completed, the plan will cut about 6 million tires of high-cost capacity and result in about $75 million of annual profit improvement, Goodyear said. Most of those savings will not be seen this year, however, executives said.
The company also said it would accelerate funding of U.S. pension plans and reduce exposure to future interest rate and equity market movements. It intends to finance the additional pension contributions by accessing the debt capital markets.
As funded levels increase, Goodyear said it would shift its U.S. pension plan asset allocation to a portfolio of fixed-income securities designed to offset the effects of discount rate movements.
Morgan Stanley's Shanker said bullish investors might have been hoping the pension would automatically fix itself in a rising rate environment, while bearish investors might not like the increased debt when Goodyear's free cash flow is not stable.
For 2013, Goodyear said it expects the North American consumer replacement market to be flat to up 2 percent and consumer original equipment to be up about 5 percent. Commercial replacement and original equipment volumes in that region should remain at about 2012 levels, the company said.
In Europe, Goodyear expects the 2013 consumer replacement industry to be flat to up 2 percent and consumer original equipment to be down about 5 percent. Commercial replacement demand looks set to increase about 5 percent in the region, with original equipment volumes flat to up 5 percent.
For the first quarter, Goodyear forecast a decline of 5 percent to 7 percent in global tire volume, with demand picking up later in the year. The company also said in documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it expects to take a first-quarter charge of about $100 million to reflect the Venezuelan currency devaluation.
Shares of Goodyear were down 0.36 percent at $13.96 in morning trading.