UPDATE 1-Hutchison eyes foreign investment amid signs of recovery

HONG KONG, March 26 Tue Mar 26, 2013 11:22am GMT

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HONG KONG, March 26 (Reuters) - Hutchison Whampoa Ltd , a ports-to-telecoms empire owned by Asia's richest man Li Ka-shing, said on Tuesday it saw signs of recovery in major economies and the group's operating divisions would continue to invest and expand.

Octogenarian Li, speaking after the firm reported a better-than-expected net profit for 2012 thanks to infrastructure investments, held court at an earnings briefing, joking with reporters and warning against speculating in Hong Kong property.

"Whilst uncertainty still remains a challenge for 2013, major economies are showing signs of stabilisation and gradual recovery," said the company, whose core businesses and operations are spread across 52 countries.

"Ninety percent of our businesses in Europe are quite mature, unless there's any unexpected change in economies, our business in Europe will be quite stable this year."

He added each of the group's major operating divisions would continue to invest and expand its core business operations.

The group's businesses in Europe reported EBITDA growth of 21 percent over the previous year.

Mainland China contributed 11 percent, or HK$42.7 billion, to Hutchison's revenues, thanks to its key businesses in retail and property.

Li, nicknamed "superman" by local media for his deal-making savvy, is eyeing further acquisitions as global economic woes drive down asset prices.

"If I have sufficient capital, say 100 billion, and you ask me what to invest, I can answer you in five minutes - if I would tell you!" he joked.

In January, Hutchison bought France Telecom's Orange Austria for 1.3 billion euro, following the purchase in July last year of British gas company Wales & West Utilities. It has also signalled interest in buying a stake in Manchester Airports Group.

NET PROFIT DOWN

Hutchison's full-year net profit totalled HK$26.1 billion, down from HK$56.02 billion a year earlier when it had booked a hefty one-off gain after spinning off its port assets, it said in a filing to the Hong Kong stock exchange.

The company, whose businesses span commercial properties in Hong Kong and China to telecommunications in Britain and energy in Canada, was forecast to report a net profit of HK$23.4 billion for 2012, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

In telecommunications, it competes with Britain's biggest mobile operator, Everything Everywhere -- a joint venture of France Telecom SA's Orange and Deutsche Telekom AG's T-Mobile. It also competes with Telefonica SA's O2 and Vodafone Group Plc.

The company said its subsidiary, Cheung Kong Infrastructure Holdings, posted a 22 percent rise in profit attributable to shareholders and expected growth to continue thanks to its investment in Wales and West Utilities Ltd, which it bought in the last quarter of 2012.

Shares of Hutchison ended down 0.5 percent prior to the results, while the Hang Seng Index finished up 0.3 percent.

Separately, Cheung Kong (Holdings) Ltd, Hong Kong's second largest property developer and which holds a controlling stake in Hutchison, posted a 30 percent fall in 2012 net profit.

The company's first annual decline since 2008 was due to fewer project launches during the year amid government tightening measures.

Li said a third of Cheung Kong's earnings came from Hong Kong, while the city's contribution to Hutchison's earnings was 16 to 17 percent. (Additional reporting by Yimou Lee and Joy Leung; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Jeremy Laurence)

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