Consumer titan Unilever, maker of everything from Marmite to Dove soap, notched up lower than expected sales in the fourth quarter as it warned “tough market conditions” were to spillover into the first part of 2017.
The FTSE 100 company which reports in euros said its underlying revenue growth (discounting mergers & acquisitions and currency movements) came in at 2.2 per cent in the three months to December, below an average analyst forecast of 2.6 per cent.
Quarterly sales were down 2.3 per cent in Europe in the quarter, but performed better in Asia and the Americas where they expanded by 3.7 per cent and 3.5 per cent respectively.
Unilever said its fourth quarter was “particularly” challenging, and it now expects to see a “slow start” to 2017 with momentum picking up through the year.
The Anglo-Dutch company has been on an aggressive push to expand margins and raise its cash targets at the expense of slower organic sales growth.
In a high-profile move following the Brexit vote, Unilever announced it was putting up prices in the UK, which accounts for 5 per cent of total sales, to offset the rising cost of imported materials and commodities prompted by the fall in sterling.
The pound has weakened six per cent in trade weighted terms since the June 23 vote and is down 15 per cent over the year when measured against a basket of currencies.
Unilever’s total full underlying revenues rose 3.7 per cent to hit €52.7bn in 2016, in line with forecasts, with its core earnings per share exceeding analyst forecasts at €1.88 (estimate: €1.86). The company’s core operating margin grew 50 basis points in the year to 15.3 per cent, with core operating profits before tax rising to €8.04bn from €7.85bn in 2015.
Chief executive Paul Polman said:
Our priorities for 2017 continue to be volume growth ahead of our markets, a further increase in core operating margin and strong cash flow. The tough market conditions which made the end of the year particularly challenging are likely to continue in the first half of 2017. Against this background, we expect a slow start with growth improving as the year progresses.
Unilever shares are up over 13 per cent in the last 12 months.
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