(Adds comments from CEO in analyst conference call)
By Gabriela Lopez and Elinor Comlay
MONTERREY/MEXICO CITY, Feb 4 (Reuters) - Mexico’s Cemex on Thursday set ambitious asset sales and debt-cutting targets and reported a surprise fourth-quarter profit, triggering a rally in its beaten-down shares.
Cemex, which plans to sell a further $1 billion to $1.5 billion in assets and cut debt by $2 billion by the end of next year, has been reaping rewards from a cost-cutting effort that is part of a longer-term bid to regain its investment-grade rating.
Shares in Cemex, one of the world’s biggest cement companies, rose over 15 percent in morning trade after falling 30 percent from the end of the third quarter through Wednesday on concern currency volatility would hurt Cemex revenues.
Still, the asset divestment goal is ambitious for Cemex, which has so far sold just $700 million of an original $1 billion to $1.5 billion it said a year ago it hoped to sell by mid-2016.
The new asset-sales target set on Thursday is in addition to the 2015 target, Chief Executive Officer Fernando Gonzalez told analysts on a call. Some assets may include real estate, he said, without elaborating about businesses up for sale.
Analysts questioned whether further market volatility might prompt Monterrey-based Cemex to rethink this strategy, but Gonzalez said he is confident the company can get “reasonable prices” for the businesses.
“We are not in a position to divest at inconvenient prices,” he said, adding, “We have shown it can be done in moments of uncertainty and we will continue to do it this year.”
Cemex reported net quarterly profit of $144 million against a $178 million loss in the year-earlier quarter. For 2015, it earned $75 million, its first full-year profit since 2009.
The company, which operates in 50 countries and has more than 80 percent of its $15.3 billion total debt denominated in dollars, said currency volatility caused a slight dip of 4 percent in its core profit, but that was also better than analysts’ expectations.
Analysts expressed some concern that the company’s debt-cutting plan does not go far enough.
Jefferies analyst Mike Betts wrote that Cemex’s balance sheet remains stretched, noting the leverage ratio rose to 5.21 from 5.19 a year earlier.
Credit Suisse’s Vanessa Quiroga said that for shareholders to see more value “in a reasonable time frame, Cemex should be more aggressive in its debt reductions.”
Gonzalez expressed confidence the leverage ratio will improve and core profit will grow this year, helped by lower currency volatility. (Reporting by Elinor Comlay, editing by David Evans and W Simon)