* Q4 op profit 1.01 bln euros vs avg forecast for 1.10 bln
* Targets 900 mln euros in cost savings through 2015
* Aims to raise dividend payout ratio this year and next
* Proposes 0.43 euro dividend per share, just below forecasts
* Shares down 0.9 percent (Adds share price, CEO, analyst comments)
By Johan Ahlander and Mia Shanley
STOCKHOLM, Jan 29 (Reuters) - Nordea will double its target for cost savings as the Nordic region’s biggest bank by market value braces for a prolonged period of weak lending, which had sent its fourth-quarter earnings below analyst forecasts.
The bank, one of Europe’s most strongly capitalised lenders, said the outlook for the region was uneven, with lukewarm growth in Finland and Denmark and a struggling housing market in Norway contrasting with a more dynamic recovery in Sweden.
“In general, the upswing in Europe is slow - it will not be financed very much by borrowing,” CEO Christian Clausen said. “We are adjusting to that, so we are taking out activity-related costs.”
Clausen said consumers were starting to spend more, but that they were not borrowing more. Companies, he said, remained cautious on investments and employment.
Nordea said it now aims to create 900 million euros in cost savings from 2013 to 2015, up from a previous 450 million euros.
Nick Anderson, an analyst at Berenberg bank, said the plan looked aggressive.
“They have a very good track record of delivering, so delivery I wouldn’t doubt. The interesting question to pose is: Will this impact revenues?” he said.
Credit Suisse said in a note that the bank’s plan to lower its cost base by five percent by 2015 looked credible, saying it implied a 4-6 percent upgrade to earnings forecasts for 2015.
Shares in Nordea fell 0.9 percent by 1152 GMT, underperforming a modestly higher blue-chip Stockholm index .
Nordea’s earnings follow weaker-than-expected results from Swedish rival Swedbank on Tuesday. Handelsbanken and SEB report next week.
Nordic banks have been busy strengthening their balance sheets, pulling out of riskier areas such as Poland and Russia in order to focus on core markets, and have benefited from far lower funding costs relative to peers.
Strong public finances in Sweden - with a top-notch AAA investment rating - have made them especially attractive to investors seeking shelter as the debt crisis played out in Europe.
Still, many investors who had hoped the well-capitalised banks would start returning more capital through special dividends, share buybacks or higher payout ratios may have to wait a bit longer.
Regulatory uncertainty remains a concern, so banks are keen to retain high capital buffers as they wait on authorities to decide on countercyclical capital buffers and possibly higher risk weights for mortgages.
Nordea laid the ground for higher dividends this year and next, but said the impact of tougher regulatory requirements was too uncertain for it to decide on its long-term target for returning capital to shareholders.
It proposed a dividend of 0.43 euros per share for the year, up 26 percent from a year ago but just missing analyst forecasts.
Nordea’s operating profit for the fourth quarter was 1.01 billion euros ($1.38 billion) compared with a mean forecast for 1.10 billion seen in a Reuters poll of analysts and a year-ago 1.03 billion. ($1 = 0.7319 euros) (Reporting by Mia Shanley and Johan Ahlander; editing by Niklas Pollard and Louise Heavens)