* 2013 operating income 2.36 bln euros, up 18.1 pct
* Says no sign of Brazil slowdown, eyes World Cup boost
* Sees return to underlying sales growth in France in 2014
* CEO says no decision yet on potential Cdiscount IPO
* Shares up 4.2 percent, top blue-chip rise in Europe (adds CEO, analyst comments, updates shares)
By Dominique Vidalon
PARIS, Feb 18 (Reuters) - French retailer Casino predicted a rise in sales and profit this year, and said it had seen no signs of slowing demand in its top market of Brazil, reassuring investors concerned about its exposure to volatile emerging markets.
Shares in the firm, which makes about 60 percent of sales in emerging markets and controls No.1 Brazilian retailer Grupo Pao de Acucar, rose as much as 5.6 percent on Tuesday.
The stock had fallen 7.3 percent this year amid signs of a sharp slowdown in some emerging market economies. Data on Friday raised the spectre that Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, may have slipped into recession.
However, Casino Chairman and Chief Executive Jean-Charles Naouri said Grupo Pao de Acucar (GPA) was going from strength to strength, helped by the popularity of its cheap cash and carry outlets as well as its convenience stores.
“The fourth quarter was excellent and current indications show the trend remains unchanged,” Naouri said, adding this summer’s soccer World Cup in Brazil made him “very optimistic” about trading there.
Casino, which met forecasts with an 18 percent rise in 2013 operating profit, also predicted a return to sales growth in France this year after a drive to lower prices, and said it had not yet decided whether to pursue a rumoured initial public offering for its online discount business, Cdiscount.
“What impresses us most about Casino’s numbers is the acceleration of net profit growth in 2H13 (the second half of 2013),” Citi analysts said, pointing out that 9.7 percent growth in the full year followed 8 percent in the first half.
At 1340 GMT, Casino shares were up 4.2 percent at 81.62 euros, the biggest rise by a European blue-chip stock.
Casino did not provide any forecast figures for 2014.
Retailers across Europe have been struggling as shoppers’ disposable income is squeezed by subdued wages growth and austerity measures.
Casino has been expanding for some years in the emerging markets of Brazil, Colombia, Thailand and Vietnam to cope with weakness in Europe.
It posted 2013 operating income of 2.36 billion euros ($3.24 billion), in line with its guidance. Profits from international operations jumped 32.6 percent, lifted notably by Brazil, while the contribution from France fell 9.8 percent.
Casino, whose brands include Geant hypermarkets, Franprix and Monoprix supermarkets and Petit Casino convenience stores, has been cutting prices in France amid weak consumer spending to boost sales volume, a move that has weighed on profit margins.
There were, however, signs price cuts were finally bearing fruit, with its French hypermarkets showing 2.2 percent underlying sales growth in the four weeks to Feb. 16 following a 2 percent fall in the fourth quarter. Naouri also predicted that the stores would return to operating profit this year.
“The recovery in France is well on track,” Societe Generale analysts said, adding Casino’s positions in emerging markets were “solid”.
Last week, GPA beat analyst forecasts with a 28 percent jump in quarterly profit, as tight cost control allowed it to bear down on prices and accelerate sales growth despite a fragile economy.
Earlier this month, Casino’s Exito unit agreed to buy 19 of Colombia’s Super Inter stores, with an option on the remaining 31 outlets, to speed expansion in Latin America.
Casino shares trade at 14.29 times 12-month forward earnings against 16.50 times for bigger French rival Carrefour and 10.81 times for Britain’s Tesco.
$1 = 0.7298 euros Editing by James Regan and Mark Potter