* Q3 oper EPS 60 cents, tops Wall Street view by a penny
* Sees FY09 EPS of $1.68-$1.72; prior view $1.68-$1.76
* Lowers FY09 sales growth forecast
* Shares fall as much as 16 percent (Adds comments about holiday)
By Martinne Geller
NEW YORK, Jan 7 (Reuters) - Constellation Brands Inc (STZ.N) trimmed its full-year sales and earnings outlook on Wednesday due to the global economic slowdown, sending the wine and spirits producer’s shares down as much as 16 percent.
Rob Sands, chief executive of the world’s largest wine maker, said U.S. market conditions remained “pretty healthy” for wine in the recession, while industrywide spirits sales were being hurt to a greater extent. The beer business, he said, has generally accelerated.
For the critical year-end holiday season, Sands said the company was still awaiting data for the last few days of the year.
But he sought to allay investor concerns by saying many U.S. consumers waited until the last minute to buy their New Year’s Eve libations. Therefore, sales may not be as bad as they look, he said on a conference call with analysts.
Constellation, which makes Robert Mondavi, Ravenswood and Clos du Bois wines and also owns the Svedka Vodka and 99 Schnapps brands, reported a profit before special items of 60 cents per share for the third quarter ended on Nov. 30.
Analysts on average were expecting 59 cents, according to Reuters Estimates.
Net income fell to $84 million, or 38 cents per share, from $120 million, or 55 cents per share, a year earlier.
The company now expects net sales, excluding the impact of acquisitions, to grow at a mid-single-digit rate in fiscal 2009, which ends in February. It previously expected sales to grow at a mid-to-high single-digit rate.
“Given the current macroeconomic environment impacting our key markets, we are recalibrating our sales expectations,” Sands said in a statement.
Constellation shares fell as low as $14.20 on Wednesday but recouped some of those losses and were down 7 percent at $15.70 in the afternoon. Through Tuesday’s close, the shares had gained 56 percent since touching a new low in mid-November.
Morgan Stanley analyst William Pecoriello said a lower interest expense and tax rate helped third-quarter results top expectations.
Constellation Brands “seems to be offsetting the slower than originally anticipated top-line growth with belt tightening, lower interest expense and lower share count,” Pecoriello wrote in a research note.
Net sales, which exclude excise taxes, fell 6 percent in the third quarter to $1.03 billion, hurt by fluctuations in currency exchange rates and the economic downturn that has consumers around the world spending more cautiously.
Sands also said the company was taking steps to cut costs and reduce debt “to better ensure that we will meet our future financial objectives.”
Constellation recently acquired some higher-end wine brands and sold off some less-expensive brands. That, as well as price increases and moderating raw material costs, helped improve profit margins.
The company said it has prepaid $195 million in term loans due in calendar 2009 under a senior credit facility, and has “ample liquidity” since it has increased cash flow and sold assets.
Constellation expects earnings per share of $1.68 to $1.72, excluding items, for fiscal 2009. In December, it forecast $1.68 to $1.76. Analysts on average were expecting $1.69.
Constellation also has a 50-50 joint venture with Grupo Modelo GMODELOC.MX that imports and distributes the Mexican brewer’s beers in the United States. (Reporting by Martinne Geller; Editing by Derek Caney and John Wallace)