* Total dividend 3.00 euros from 2.05 euros for 2013
* Plans $1 bln share buyback
* Sees better industry volumes in U.S., Mexico, China
* Q4 core profit $5.07 bln vs Reuters poll consensus of $5.30 bln (Updates after conference call, adds shares)
By Philip Blenkinsop
LEUVEN, Belgium, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Anheuser-Busch InBev , the world’s largest brewer, announced a sharply higher dividend and a $1-billion share buyback on Thursday, promising increased investor returns in years ahead.
It also forecast improved beer sales in most of its major markets this year, particularly with the growth in emerging markets of higher priced premium brands such as Budweiser, 60 percent of which is now sold outside the United States.
The cash-rich, Belgium-based company proposed a total dividend of 3.00 euros for 2014, a jump from 2.05 euros for 2013. Analysts had on average been expecting 2.92 euros.
“Our goal is to reach a dividend yield of 3-4 percent in line with other consumer goods companies,” Chief Financial Officer Felipe Dutra told a conference call after a 2014 payout equivalent to 2.7 percent.
AB InBev said it would be buying back $1 billion of its shares over the course of 2015, many of them used to cover employee stock ownership schemes.
Shares in AB InBev, up 17 percent already this year, were little changed in early trading, with a higher dividend offset by softer than expected fourth-quarter earnings.
The maker of Budweiser, Stella Artois and Corona beers said industry volumes in the United States, its largest market, should improve after a 0.6-percent overall dip in sales to retailers in 2014. AB InBev sells almost half of all the beer drunk in the United States
Beer industry volumes would continue to grow in Mexico, the world’s fourth largest market in terms of profit, and return to growth in China, after a four percent drop in volumes in 2014 due to an economic slowdown and poor weather. AB InBev’s own China volumes grew 1.6 percent last year
For Brazil, the world’s second largest market where it has a two-thirds share, it said net revenues should grow by a mid- to high single digit percentage, helped by continued growth of premium brands.
Sales of Budweiser in Brazil grew by over 40 percent last year, with such premium brands now making up eight percent of the market there, still below levels in other parts of the world.
Analysts have expressed concern that AB InBev could find 2015 difficult in Brazil after a year that was boosted by the soccer World Cup there and with economic problems mounting.
“Although the macroeconomic environment in Brazil is challenging, we believe the underlying fundamentals for our business remain sound,” Dutra said, citing an expected growth in those legally allowed to drink and scope for expansion in north and northeast regions.
Overall, fourth-quarter core profit rose 5.6 percent on a like-for-like basis and excluding currency effects to $5.07 billion, below the average $5.31 billion forecast in a Reuters poll. China margins were hit and savings in Mexico, where AB InBev took control of Modelo in 2012, were limited. (Editing by Alastair Macdonald)