April 14, 2016 / 7:32 AM / 2 years ago

UPDATE 1-Casino says French business improving, keeps targets

(Adds CFO comments, forecasts, shares)

By Dominique Vidalon

PARIS, April 14 (Reuters) - French retailer Casino , under pressure from an activist U.S. investor, beat first-quarter sales forecasts on Thursday, showing a recovery in its home market and a slower decline in consumer electrics demand in recession-hit Brazil.

The group, which saw its credit rating cut to junk status last month by Standard & Poor’s, also kept its goals for higher profits and cash flow in France this year and said it was confident of achieving asset sales to cut its debt.

Casino’s shares were hit hard in December when U.S. activist investor Muddy Waters said the group was “dangerously leveraged” and managed for the short-term.

The company has rejected the criticism and pledged to cut debt by selling 4 billion euros ($4.5 billion) of assets while improving performance in France.

First-quarter group sales came in at 9.71 billion euros, beating analysts’ average estimate of 9.56 billion euros in a poll provided by the company. Stripping out acquisitions, disposals, currency effects and fuel, sales rose 1.5 percent.

At 0715 GMT, Casino stock was up 0.6 percent at 54.75 euros.

The company has cut prices at home at its Geant hypermarkets and discount arm LeaderPrice. Same-store Geant sales rose 4.0 percent in the first quarter after rising 3.0 percent on a comparable basis in the fourth quarter of 2015.

Same-store sales at LeaderPrice rose 4.5 percent.

In Brazil, where Casino controls top retailer Grupo Pao de Acucar, consumer electronics sales fell 11.8 percent, compared with a 15.2 percent fall in the fourth quarter on a same-store basis.

Finance chief Antoine Giscard d’Estaing said the business there was on a “stabilising trend”.

Casino has said it is aiming for a 50 percent jump in trading profit to more than 500 million euros at its French operations this year, as price cuts lift underlying sales at least 1.5 percent.

Giscard d’Estaing said the group hoped to seal the sale of its Vietnamese assets this quarter.

$1 = 0.8883 euros Editing by James Regan and Mark Potter

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