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UPDATE 3-Remy warns China sales drop to send earnings down 20 pct

Dominique Vidalon
Tuesday, 26 Nov 2013 | 7:58 AM ET

* H1 op pft 132.7 mln, down 7.3 pct l-f-l vs f'cast 124 mln

* Cognac op profit down 11.7 pct l-f-l

* China slowdown, higher advertising to weigh on H2

* Liqueurs and spirits H1 op profit up 2.6 percent

* Shares down 10 pct, hit near two-year low

(Adds details, CEO quotes, analyst quotes)

PARIS, Nov 26 (Reuters) - French spirits group Remy Cointreau SA warned full-year operating profit would fall by at least 20 percent as a Chinese government crackdown on ostentatious spending hurts demand for its premium cognac.

Its shares plummeted more than 10 percent to a near two-year low.

The maker of Remy Martin cognac, Cointreau liqueur and Mount Gay Rum said wholesalers in China were still running down high inventories and it did not know when demand could pick up, with sales prospects for the Chinese New Year in February looking bleak.

"The second half will be sharply impacted by China and we want to continue investing, so we expect a decline of 20 percent or slightly more in full-year operating profit," Chief Executive Frederic Pflanz told a news conference on Tuesday.

"We still have a tense situation on stocks and we do not have positive expectations for the Chinese New Year," Pflanz added.

Remy's operating profit in its last fiscal year was 245.4 million euros ($331.5 million).

Like its global rivals such as Diageo Plc and Pernod Ricard SA, Remy has been hit by a Chinese government crackdown on gift-giving and personal spending by civil servants, as well as slowing economic growth in the world's second-biggest economy.

Pernod for instance flagged this issue earlier this year, saying business during the Chinese New Year was "softer" this year than last.

Yet the emerging concern is that the squeeze is continuing with no signs of when demand will pick up.

Analysts at brokerage Liberum Capital said Remy's profit guidance was "disappointing and worrying" and was "much worse than our estimate of minus 8 percent for the year and consensus of minus 2 percent".

GROWING CONCERN

By 1052 GMT Remy shares were down 10.5 percent to 64.33 euros, while Pernod slipped 2.7 percent and Diageo lost 1.1 percent.

Remy shares had already has lost 14 percent so far this year amid growing concern over the impact of a slowdown in China, at the same time as the STOXX Europe 600 food and drinks sector index has gained 9 percent.

The China slowdown contributed to a 10.4 percent fall in Remy's cognac sales in the first half, which included a 25 percent slump in cognac sales in China alone.

Group operating profit for the six months to Sept. 30 reached 132.7 million euros, down 7.3 percent like-for-like from a year ago but beating analysts' expectations for 124 million, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S, but including lower advertising and promotion expenses.

The group's cognac division reported an 11.7 percent fall in like-for-like first-half operating profit.

Pflanz said the Chinese crackdown was hurting cognac sales in restaurants and karaoke clubs where consumers were wary they could be seen. By contrast, sales in stores and in night clubs where consumers felt more anonymous were more resilient.

In the longer-term, Remy said it remained confident over growth prospects in China as it stakes the thirst of an ever- growing number of affluent Chinese for its premium cognacs.

It said it would step up advertising and promotional spending in the second half in a bid to boost sales.

Remy's liqueurs and spirits division, where operating profit rose 2.6 percent in the first half, was a bright spot as Cointreau sales grew in the United States and in key European markets. Metaxa liquor and Mount Gay rum also did well. ($1 = 0.7404 euros)

(Editing by Louise Heavens and David Holmes)

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