* Demand in Asia, Africa continues to grow
* Earnings in Europe, north America helped by one-off gains
* Raises annual cost cutting target to 1 bln euros from 850 mln euros
* Q4 operating profit up 10.9 pct at 455 mln euros, as expected
* Shares rise over 4 percent (Adds share price reaction, analysts’ comments, details)
By Peter Dinkloh
FRANKFURT, Feb 7 (Reuters) - HeidelbergCement expects to be able to raise prices this year following a pick-up in demand in some of its markets in Asia, Africa and north America, it said on Thursday, after reporting a near 11 percent rise in quarterly profits.
The German company also said it aimed to step up its cost-cutting programme to save an extra 150 million euros this year, which will bring its target for cutting annual costs over the three years ending 2013 to 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion).
“Due to the continuing strong economic growth in the emerging markets and the recovery in the U.S., we are cautiously confident for the future,” Chief Executive Bernd Scheifele said, adding he would give a more detailed outlook when the group reports full results on March 14.
Operating income in the fourth quarter rose 10.9 percent to 455 million euros, in line with estimates from analysts, with profits in Africa and Asia coming in better than forecast.
Shares in the group were up 4.7 percent at 48.41 euros at 1147 GMT, when the STOXX Europe 600 Construction & Materials sector index was up 0.5 percent.
The latest share price values the company at 13.7 times prospective earnings, in line with the average for its peers, according to Thomson Reuters StarMine data.
“HeidelbergCement is growing in its most important markets,” said DZ Bank analyst Marc Nettelbeck. “They are doing a good job.”
Scheifele is focusing on lifting prices and shaving costs to make up for rising fuel prices and in order to cut debt after the company saddled itself with 15-billion euros of liabilities due to the takeover of peer Hanson in 2007.
Scheifele is also changing incentives to get managers to sell more higher-margin products and is expanding its cement production in Ghana and Liberia as well as in Indonesia and India, regions where growth is strongest.
However, HeidelbergCement managed to meet expectations in the fourth quarter thanks only to a 66 million-euro gain from selling CO2 emissions certificates.
Operating income in western Europe would have dropped without the book gain and it would have shown a stronger decline in eastern Europe. In North America a 42 million-euro gain from a pension plan helped cushion a drop in earnings there.
“If we strip out those book gains we haven’t seen much effect from the cost savings, as margins haven’t progressed,” said a London-based analyst who declined to be identified.
“The market conditions are very tough, so I wonder how HeidelbergCement wants to push through price increases?” ($1=0.7387 euros) (Editing by Mark Potter and Greg Mahlich)