October 30, 2018 / 1:45 PM / 23 days ago

UPDATE 3-Fiat Chrysler's lower cash forecast overshadows special dividend pledge

* Q3 adj. operating profit up 13 pct, above expectations

* FCA to pay 2 bln euros in special dividends after Magneti deal

* Carmaker cuts 2018 net cash forecast to 1.5-2 bln euros

* North America contributes almost all of profit (Adds comments, details from conference call)

By Agnieszka Flak and Ben Klayman

MILAN/DETROIT, Oct 30 (Reuters) - Fiat Chrysler (FCA) reported better-than-expected third-quarter earnings and promised to pay 2 billion euros ($2.3 billion) in special dividends, but a lower net cash forecast and its over-reliance on the North American market weighed on its shares.

Milan-listed shares in FCA closed down 3.2 percent on Tuesday.

The Italian-American carmaker confirmed its revenue and profit forecasts for this year, but cut its net cash estimate to between 1.5 and 2.0 billion euros from around 3 billion euros, citing production adjustments and pension contributions.

It promised the special dividend after agreeing last week to sell parts unit Magneti Marelli to Japan's Calsonic Kansei for 6.2 billion euros.

The sale was the first big deal since Mike Manley took over in July after long-time chief Sergio Marchionne fell ill and later died following complications from surgery.

Manley said the Magneti Marelli sale put FCA in the strongest position since its formation in 2014, and made its liquidity position comparable to peers.

The deal also reaffirmed his commitment to deliver on FCA's strategy to 2022 as an independent company, Manley added.

"Closing this transaction puts us in a much stronger position ... our aim is to complete that five-year plan, deliver on our commitments as an independent (company)," he said on a call with analysts, when asked about any future merger plans.

The special dividend comes on top of ordinary dividends of 20 percent of earnings that the company has already pledged to pay starting early next year. Both still need to be approved by the board and shareholders.

The world's seventh-largest carmaker said adjusted earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) for the July-September period rose 13 percent to 1.995 billion euros, compared with 1.87 billion euros in a Reuters poll of analysts.

Sales rose 9 percent, above expectations, helped by higher shipments of the new Jeep Wrangler and Cherokee models and the new RAM 1500 pick-up truck.

ONE REGION STORY

North America accounted for 97 percent of profit in the quarter and operating profit margins in the region rose to 10.2 percent from 8.0 percent last year as a shift to sell more trucks and SUVs continued to pay off.

However, the over-reliance on one region worried some.

"This is now a one region story, unless one believes other parts are ripe for a turnaround," Bernstein analyst Max Warburton said. "While the U.S. delivered spectacularly, the news from elsewhere is not encouraging."

Both Europe and Asia reported an operating loss.

FCA's operations in Europe were hit by the transition towards tougher emissions tests which became mandatory from the start of September.

Chinese market weakness weighed on FCA's performance in Asia and hit sales of luxury brand Maserati. The brand's margins fell to 2.4 percent from 13.8 percent last year.

Manley said he saw significant upside for Europe in future.

He also expects progress at Maserati in the second half of next year, adding the product remained competitive but was plagued by issues related to how it was positioned and managed.

FCA expects to take a hit of around 850 million euros from higher steel and aluminium prices this year, and a similar impact in 2019.

Group net profit in the quarter was down 38 percent as FCA set aside 713 million euros to cover potential costs related to talks with U.S. authorities over suspected diesel emissions violations - which FCA denies. The charge does not represent an agreed settlement, nor is an admission of liability, FCA added.

"(This provision) sits someway below most expectations of a figure in excess of 1 billion euros," Evercore ISI analyst George Galliers said in a note.

($1 = 0.8808 euros)

Additional reporting by Danilo Masoni; Editing by Keith Weir and Mark Potter

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