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Unilever Posts Small Profit Rise; Cautions On Outlook

By Simon Zekaria Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES LONDON -(Dow Jones)- Unilever PLC (UN, UL) Thursday posted a small rise in full-year net profit on higher sales, higher prices in selected markets and volume gains in emerging economies, but cautioned the outlook remains difficult this year. The company, one of the world's biggest producers of consumer goods, said purchases of ice cream, tea, cleaning products, deodorants and shampoo in the booming economies of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East are more than offsetting weaker sales in debt-laden Western Europe and the U.S. "We expect the external macro-economic environment to remain difficult in 2012 and input cost headwinds will persist, although to a lesser extent than in 2011.," Chief Executive Paul Polman said in a statement. The Anglo-Dutch firm is the second-largest maker of branded household products by revenue after U.S.-based Procter & Gamble Co. (PG) and is behind food products such as Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Knorr soup and Bertolli olive oil spreads and household products such as Dove soap, Lynx aftershave and Cif cleaner. Net profit for the fiscal year rose to EUR4.25 billion from EUR4.24 billion in the same period a year ago. Fourth-quarter sales excluding acquisitions, disposals and currency movements grew 6.6%, missing a company-produced consensus of market forecasts that predicted 6.8% growth. This compares with a 5.1% rise in the same period a year ago and a 7.8% increase in the previous three months. Volumes, stripping out acquisitions, disposals and currency movements in the quarter rose only 0.1%, down from 5.1% growth last year and a 1.9% increase in the third quarter. Volume growth was adjusted by about 1% for the impact of sales in North America, the group said. Unilever's operating margin in the full year, excluding restructuring, disposals and other exceptional items, was down to 14.9% from 15% last year. The company warned in November of flat to lower margin in the fiscal year. To combat rising costs, the company is streamlining packaging, paring its logistics, sourcing and purchasing costs, and selectively increasing prices to stem margin losses. The price of its products rose 6.5% in the fourth quarter, compared with a 5.8% increase in the third quarter. Unilever, which also competes with Switzerland's Nestle SA (NESN.VX), faces a challenging consumer outlook in its mature economies, where shoppers' disposable income is under pressure from rising unemployment, below-inflation pay rises and austerity measures such as tax hikes and public spending cuts. P&G last week posted a 4% rise in net sales to $22.1 billion for its fiscal second quarter, and said its operating profit growth will accelerate as commodity costs ease. Unilever proposed a quarterly dividend of EUR0.225 a share, payable in March, and reiterated its guidance of profitable volume growth, steady and sustainable underlying operating margin improvement and strong cash flow. Unilever shares closed Wednesday at 2085 pence, valuing the company at GBP58.7 billion. The shares have fallen 3.6% in the year to date. -By Simon Zekaria, Dow Jones Newswires; +44 207 842-9410; simon.zekaria@dowjones.com

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