* Q4 net loss after minorities 438 mln Sfr
* Analysts in poll had forecast loss of 521 mln Sfr
* Proposes dividend of 1.00 Sfr per share vs 1.50 yr-ago
* Sees 2012 cement demand driven by emerging markets
By Caroline Copley
ZURICH, Feb 29 (Reuters) - Holcim, the world’s second-largest cement maker, said rising demand in Asia and the Americas would lift profits this year, soothing investors’ concerns as it posted a fourth-quarter loss and cut its dividend by a third.
The Swiss group, which makes more than half of its sales in emerging markets, also said on Wednesday it would strive to pass on the higher cost of raw materials and transport to customers, something which it has not managed to do in full so far. “Clearly the expectation is we have reached a trough in respect to the margin squeeze,” finance chief Thomas Aebischer told a media conference, adding that operating margin improved in the fourth quarter of 2011 for the first time since 2010.
Holcim, which competes with Mexico’s Cemex and France’s Lafarge, posted a fourth-quarter net loss of 438 million francs ($488 million), largely due to an already announced 775 million franc charge. That beat analysts’ forecast for a 521 million franc loss.
“Q4 was much better than expected and the outlook is confident,” Vontobel analyst Serge Rotzer said.
At 0920 GMT, Holcim shares, which have risen 16 percent since the start of the year, were up 1.2 percent at 59 euros, compared with a 0.4 percent rise in the STOXX Europe 600 construction index.
An uncertain economic recovery has weighed on the construction industry, and energy-hungry cement makers have faced extra headwinds from rising raw material costs.
Also on Wednesday, German builder Hochtief scrapped its 2013 profit goal and said earnings this year would fall short of levels two years ago as weak economic growth hits construction orders in the United States.
Yet in a sign that the wind might be turning, Holcim, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary, said it expected to grow operating profit this year, excluding acquisitions.
The group, which cut its dividend to 1.00 francs per share from 1.50 francs in 2010, forecast growing demand for building materials in Latin America, Asia, Russia and Azerbaijan in 2012.
Holcim, which has tried to offset rising costs with price hikes, said it would continue to pass on inflation-induced cost increases.
“In many markets strong competition meant that inflation-related cost increases, in particular for raw materials, energy and transport, could not yet be fully passed on to selling prices,” said Markus Akermann, who passed on the CEO baton to Bernard Fontana at the start of the month.
Fontana said he planned to implement further cost savings and would focus on returning the company’s return on capital invested back to its minimum target of 8 percent after tax.
Indian cement makers Ambuja Cements and ACC , in which Holcim holds just over 50 percent, said earlier this month rising energy, logistics and raw material costs may keep pressuring margins, despite higher cement prices and volumes.
Holcim’s upbeat view on Latin America and Asia echoed rival Lafarge, which expects 2012 demand to be driven by emerging markets, while German competitor HeidelbergCement noted demand was robust in Northern Europe and Germany in 2011.
Demand in Europe should remain stable as long as there are no further systemic shocks, Holcim said.
Fourth-quarter like-for-like sales rose 13.1 percent to 5.28 billion francs compared with a forecast for 4.92 billion.