VEVEY, Switzerland (Reuters) - The world's biggest food company, Nestle SA (NESN.VX), sees no respite this year from a tough trading environment after sales growth undershot rival Unilever last year as emerging markets like Asia slowed.
Nestle is trying to keep earnings growing in a flagging global economy by focusing on its most profitable food businesses such as infant formula and premium coffee Nespresso.
Its exposure to emerging markets has helped it outperform rivals like Danone (DANO.PA) and Procter & Gamble (PG.N) that are more reliant on sluggish developed economies.
But that has also made the maker of KitKat chocolate bars and Maggi soup sensitive to any slackening of demand in those faster-growing regions.
Its expansion in emerging markets, which make up 43 percent of sales, slowed last year to 11 percent from 13.3 percent in 2011.
Analysts said they were disappointed by weaker-than-expected growth in the last quarter in the Americas, which contributes a third of sales, and Asia, Oceania and Africa (AOA), resulting in annual sales growth of 5.2 percent and 8.4 percent respectively.
Chief Financial Officer Wan Ling Martello said there had been fewer of the one-off events such as typhoons in the Philippines and social unrest in Egypt that hit sales in the third quarter, but analysts were underwhelmed.
"Sentiment is likely to take a knock after the disappointing Q4 performance in Zone AOA," said analyst Ronny Landolt at Barclays Capital. "This region has not bounced back after a series of one-offs affected Q3."
Nestle shares, which hit a record high on Wednesday of 64.70 francs after positive news from cosmetics firm L'Oreal (OREP.PA), in which it holds a large stake, fell 2.5 percent to 62.90 francs, underperforming a flat European sector .SX3P.
Nestle's 2012 underlying sales grew 5.9 percent last year to 92.2 billion Swiss francs ($100.30 billion), in line with a consensus analyst forecast and implying a slight recovery after third-quarter growth of some 5 percent.
It said it still saw double-digit sales growth in Africa, China, the Middle East and Indonesia, helped by strong demand for products like its Milo chocolate milk and Maggi stock cubes.
Analysts said the revenue expansion was not bringing the kind of growth in profitability they had hoped for.
Its chief rival, Anglo-Dutch consumer goods group Unilever (ULVR.L) (UNc.AS), beat expectations with stronger full-year underlying sales growth of 6.9 percent, propelled by sales of haircare products and soaps in emerging markets.
Their French competitor Danone publishes its 2012 results on February 19.
Nestle shares trade at 17.8 times estimated 2013 earnings, in line with Unilever but at a premium to Danone's (DANO.PA) 16.2 times.
Nestle's proposed 2012 dividend of 2.05 francs per share was below an analyst forecast of 2.09 francs.
"We continue to prefer Unilever, which had significantly better top-line in the second half, and we expect the superior performance to continue in the first half of 2013," UBS analysts said in a note.
STRONG WATER SALES
Analysts welcomed growth of 6.4 percent at Nestle's bottled water business, which was helped by strong sales of premium brands like San Pellegrino and Perrier as well as its Pure Life budget brand.
The water business also benefited from U.S. consumers stocking up due to Hurricane Sandy, which devastated parts of New York and New Jersey in October.
Nestle's water sales had suffered in recent years from cash-strapped customers switching back to tap water as well as from criticism from green campaigners.
Chief Executive Paul Bulcke struck a note of caution for 2013, even as he reiterated the company's standard forecast of underlying sales growth between 5 and 6 percent and underlying earnings per share growth in constant currencies.
"2013 will have its difficulties certainly, but many opportunities to leverage our competitive advantages," he said.
CFO Martello said Nestle was still working with competition regulators on divestments after its $11.9 billion purchase last year of Pfizer Inc's (PFE.N) baby food business. She said she expected about 15 percent of the business to be sold.
Martello declined to give a forecast for costs of raw materials like milk, coffee and cocoa in 2013, saying only that Nestle did not expect as much volatility as in recent years. ($1 = 0.9193 Swiss francs)
(Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)