* 2015 group operating profit down 35 pct, as expected
* CEO not ruling out exceeding 4 bln euros assets sale goal
* Confirms 2016 French EBIT goal of at least 500 mln euros (Recasts with CEO comments, analyst, updates shares)
By Dominique Vidalon
PARIS, March 9 (Reuters) - Retailer Casino responded to pressure from U.S. activist investor Muddy Waters with a renewed pledge to cut its debt using proceeds from disposals and the promise of improved profits and cash flow in its main French market.
Muddy Waters “shorted” Casino in December, saying the French group was “dangerously leveraged”, sparking a share price fall. . Muddy Waters renewed its attack on Casino on March 7, casting more doubts on its revival in France.
Muddy Waters had no immediate response to the Casino comments on Wednesday.
Standard & Poor’s also threatened in January to downgrade Casino’s credit rating to junk status, citing high debts and weakness in Brazil, where it controls top retailer Grupo Pao de Acucar.
Chief Executive Jean-Charles Naouri said he was confident Casino would manage to sell 4 billion euros of assets to cut debt which totalled 6.1 billion at the end of 2015. He did not rule out exceeding that target.
“We want to stay investment grade and scoring 4 billion euros in disposals is a key element,” he said.
An S&P decision on the credit rating is expected in the middle of next month.
Casino announced the sale of its 58.6 percent stake in Thai unit Big C for 3.1 billion euros last month while several Asian players are eyeing its Vietnam business.
Casino also kept its dividend unchanged at 3.12 euros per share despite posting a 35 percent fall in 2015 operating profit, as weakness in recession-hit Brazil weighed.
Casino’s shares were 1.3 percent lower at 1500 GMT following the 2015 results, which were in line with analysts’ forecasts. The shares have clawed back most of their losses since Muddy Waters’ intervention.
“Casino’s finals confirmed pressures in international profitability and improving trends in France,” said Jefferies analysts in a note, cautioning that “international macro drivers remain tipped to the downside”, notably in Brazil.
In another clear message to its doubters, Casino stuck to its profit and cash flow growth goals for its main French business for 2016.
Casino’s Chief Financial Officer Antoine Giscard d‘Estaing told reporters the first two months of the year had shown a good sales trend in France, while a decline in consumer electronics in Brazil, which hit operating profit, was slowing.
Casino reported operating income of 1.45 billion euros ($1.6 billion), down from 2.23 billion in 2014 and in line with analysts forecasts.
Casino said that for French operations in 2016 it was aiming for a 50 percent jump in trading profit to more than 500 million euros, as price cuts would boost sales by at least 1.5 percent like-for-like. Cost cuts and savings from a purchasing deal with French retailer Intermarche would also help. ($1 = 0.9111 euros) (Editing by Alexander Smith and Keith Weir)