* Q4 core profit $4.31 bln vs expected $4.73 bln
* Total dividend raised to 3.60 euros from 3.00
* Sees challenges in Brazil, China, strong Mexico (Adds Breakingviews link)
BRUSSELS, Feb 25 (Reuters) - Anheuser-Busch InBev, which is strengthening its position as the world’s largest brewer by buying SABMiller, reported lower than expected fourth-quarter earnings on Thursday as it suffered a declining U.S. market share and margins.
The Belgium-based maker of Budweiser, Corona and Stella Artois forecast improved volumes and a better brand mix in its largest market, the United States, another strong year in Mexico, but economic challenges in Brazil and China.
AB InBev gave no new information on its planned $100 billion takeover of nearest rival SABMiller, saying it still expected the deal to close in the second half of this year.
It has already arranged provisional sales of U.S. and European brands to Molson Coors and Asahi respectively. Bond issues have also seen it secure funding for about $47 billion of the purchase price.
Its shares fell 1.7 percent to 102 euros, making it among the weakest performers in the FTSEurofirst 300 index of leading European stocks.
Trevor Stirling, drinks analyst at Bernstein Securities, said the value of AB InBev stock depends on how investors view the existing business and the potential SABMiller benefits.
“There’s no new news today on SABMiller but clearly the implication is that the value of the core business is not quite as high as we thought it was yesterday,” he said.
Despite the earnings setback, the company raised its dividend to a total of 3.60 euros from 3.00 euro, compared with a market expectation of about 3.30.
“You’d think they’d be husbanding their cash and yet they’re showing distinct generosity,” said Andrew Holland, beverage analyst at SocGen, adding the company had not been clear about its dividend going forward.
The SABMiller is designed to boost the brewer in Africa and Latin American countries including Colombia and Peru when markets such as the United States are weakening as drinkers shun mainstream lagers in favour of craft brews and cocktails.
PROFIT MISSES FORECAST
AB InBev reported that fourth quarter core profit (EBITDA) grew by 6.6 percent on a like-for-like basis to $4.31 billion, against the median forecast in a Reuters poll was $4.73 billion.
Volumes declined in the United States, where Budweiser and Bud Light lost market share, and Brazil in 2015. Price rises and the shift of drinkers to high-priced beers such as Budweiser meant Brazilian and Chinese revenue and margins grew.
U.S. margins dropped sharply, hit in part by higher spending on sales and marketing. The weaker Brazilian real, Mexican peso and the euro meant the reported number was lower.
For 2016, the company said price hikes and premium lagers should mean revenue per hectolitre increased by more than inflation.
This would help in Brazil. AB InBev, which has a two-thirds market share there, said revenue in Brazil should increase by a mid to high single-digit percentage this year after a weak first quarter.
Brazil, Latin America’s biggest economy is on track for its worst recession since records began in 1901.
In China, the brewer said it expected to fare better than the industry average. China, the world’s second-largest economy, grew at its slowest rate in 25 years in 2015.
Reporting By Philip Blenkinsop; editing by Keith Weir
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