* Q4 shipments to all markets except Asia down
* Improvements in N.American business cheer some
* Sees 2012 profit ex-items $6.50-$7/share
* Price rises, cleaner inventory to help 2012 - analyst
* Whirlpool stock up 11.7 percent, Electrolux shares up
(Adds more analyst comments, Electrolux share move)
By Dhanya Skariachan
Feb 1 (Reuters) - Whirlpool Corp (WHR.N) gave an optimistic forecast for 2012 despite a lackluster finish to 2011, hoping that price increases, tighter cost controls and a leaner inventory will help the No. 1 appliance maker offset weak global demand.
The maker of Maytag and KitchenAid appliances also reported better-than-expected quarterly margins in North America, its largest market, and said it saw the chance of a slight increase in shipments there this year.
The news boosted Whirlpool’s shares nearly 12 percent and Swedish rival Electrolux’s (ELUXb.ST) stock by nearly 4 percent. Electrolux is due to report results on Thursday.
For a graphic, click link.reuters.com/nyd46s
Vertical Research Partners analyst Jeff Sprague called North America “a relative bright spot” in the fourth quarter. Still, Whirlpool’s shipments declined there, as well as in Europe and Latin America.
In North America, Whirlpool “seems to have struck a decent balance between volume and promotion, which stabilized share and boosted margins,” Sprague said.
Margins of 4.1 percent in North America, excluding gains, were above his 2.8 percent estimate, he added. “Conversely, Europe, Latin America and Asia all missed our forecast, with Europe falling to a loss.”
On Wednesday, Whirlpool forecast 2012 earnings of $6.50 to $7 a share, excluding restructuring charges and Brazilian tax credits. That was above what many analysts were looking for, independent retail analyst Brian Sozzi said.
“Whirlpool’s cleaner inventory position entering the year, lessening of inflation pressures, and a year-long campaign to raise prices are the positive aspects,” Sozzi said.
Based on the current economic outlook, the company sees U.S. unit shipments this year ranging between flat and a rise of 3 percent. It sees shipments to Europe, Middle East and Africa falling 2 percent to 5 percent.
The company expects shipments to Latin America to rise 2 percent to 5 percent, and those to Asia to increase 2 percent to 4 percent.
“We are assuming relatively flat to slightly improving industry demand during the year and have planned our business accordingly,” Whirlpool Chief Executive Jeff Fettig said.
Sozzi said the shipment forecasts were “reasonable.”
Whirlpool reported a drop in fourth-quarter sales, hurt by a stronger dollar and weak global demand.
“I think we got the soft quarter that was expected, not much in the way of improved housing data showing up in the North America unit numbers,” Sozzi said.
“Europe (was) soft, while Asia was below what I would characterize as acceptable,” he said, adding that personal consumption seems to have weakened in India.
High raw material costs also hurt Whirlpool in the quarter. Sales fell to $4.9 billion from $5.0 billion a year earlier.
Whirlpool appears to have lost market share in washers to Korean manufacturers, which discounted aggressively in the key holiday selling season, analysts have said.
The century-old American manufacturer alleges South Korean producers such as Samsung Electronics (005930.KS) and LG Electronics (066570.KS) are selling residential washing machines in the United States at prices 31 percent to 82 percent below fair market value.
Whirlpool filed petitions with the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission seeking an investigation into its rivals’ washers, which are made in South Korea and Mexico.
Whirlpool also accuses Mexican suppliers of undercutting U.S. prices by 27 percent to 72 percent.
Fourth-quarter net earnings rose to $205 million, or $2.62 a share, from $171 million, or $2.19 a share, a year earlier. Excluding tax credits and other special items, it earned 32 cents a share.
Whirlpool is focusing on cutting costs and production capacity, and implementing previously announced price increases to offset tepid demand around the world. It is also betting on high-tech and energy-efficient appliances.
From reducing manufacturing capacity to axing about a tenth of its workforce in North America and Europe, Whirlpool took some drastic actions last fall to cut costs and boost margins.
The company also closed some manufacturing facilities in North America and moved some production to lower-cost countries. In recent years, it also started using common parts across its lineup of dishwashers, refrigerators and washing machines.
Shares of Whirlpool were up 11.7 percent at $60.70 in morning trading.
(Reporting By Dhanya Skariachan; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)
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