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26-07-2012 08:35:00

Unilever Warns of Worsening Economy as Profit Slips

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By Simon Zekaria

LONDON--Unilever PLC (ULVR.LN) Thursday warned of a worsening global economy as the consumer goods giant posted a fall in first-half profit, even as a revenue rose on strong demand in emerging markets and price increases.

"Despite deteriorating global economic conditions and a competitive environment which remains intense, we again delivered volume growth ahead of our markets and gained value share across the majority of our business," said Chief Executive Paul Polman.

Sales of branded goods in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe are more than offsetting lower demand in Western Europe and North America, where government austerity measures, unemployment and inflationary pressures are squeezing consumer spending.

Unilever added Europe is beset by "sluggish economies and fragile consumer confidence."

Debt-laden Southern European economies, such as Spain, Greece and Italy remain a problem for the industry's big companies. Last month, French rival Danone SA (BN.FR) issued a profit warning and noted deteriorating consumer sentiment. And in April, U.S.-based market leader Procter & Gamble Co. (PG) warned its full-year profit and sales would be lower than previously expected.

Unilever, which expects continued volatility in commodity costs, also said its first-half operating margin was flat at 13.7% following increased promotional spend. Still, it noted it remains on track to deliver a modest improvement in the full-year operating margin.

The Anglo-Dutch maker of Ben & Jerry's ice cream and Bertolli olive oil spreads, as well as household products including Dove soap and Lynx bodyspray, said first-half net profit fell 2.7% to EUR2.18 billion, from EUR2.24 billion a year earlier.

Stripping out acquisitions, disposals and currency movements, second-quarter sales grew 5.8%, but slowed compared with a rise of 7.1% in the same period last year and an 8.4% increase in the previous three months. The metric is a closely watched measure of how the company's products are selling.

On the same basis, volumes rose 2.2%, compared with 1.9% growth last year and a 3.5% increase in the first quarter. Second-quarter pricing increased 3.5% as the company, like its peers, compensates for soft volumes and claws back commodity costs.

Unilever's total second-quarter sales rose to EUR13.3 billion from EUR11.93 billion, beating market forecasts of EUR13 billion.

It declared a quarterly dividend of EUR0.243 a share, up from EUR0.225.

Unilever shares closed Wednesday at 2140 pence, valuing the company at GBP27.47 billion.

Write to Simon Zekaria at simon.zekaria@dowjones.com

Subscribe to WSJ: http://online.wsj.com?mod=djnwires

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 26, 2012 02:35 ET (06:35 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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