By Dominique Vidalon
PARIS (Reuters) - French food group Danone shrugged off a slow start to the year on Wednesday, saying it expected sales growth to accelerate after setbacks in China and Morocco.
The world's biggest yoghurt maker said it was confident of delivering its financial targets for 2019 and 2020, even after first-quarter sales were hit by weaker demand for infant formula products in China and a consumer boycott in Morocco.
Danone said underlying sales in the first three months of the year rose 0.8 percent to 6.14 billion euros (£5.32 billion), down from 2.4 percent growth in the fourth quarter of 2018.
Its shares were down 1.6 percent at 0900 GMT.
"The start of the year is relatively modest, as expected, but this puts the spotlight on very ambitious targets. The second half will be crucial," said Roche-Brune Asset Management fund manager Gregoire Laverne.
Danone said it expected sales growth to accelerate from the second quarter and that the sale of loss-making arm EarthBound Farm would help margins later this year.
The company is targeting group like-for-like sales growth of around 3 percent and an operating margin above 15 percent for 2019. That in turn would put the maker of Activia yoghurt and Evian water on track for its 2020 goals of an operating margin above 16 percent and like-for-like sales growth of 4-5 percent.
"We expect to exit the year 2019 with fourth quarter sales growth consistent with our 2020 objectives," said Chief Financial Officer Cecile Cabanis, adding margin growth would be stronger in the second half than in the first.
HOPING FOR IMPROVEMENT IN CHINA
Danone's waters division had a solid first quarter, while growth at the Essential Dairy and Plant-based business was hit by the ongoing Morocco boycott and the pruning of the premium dairy portfolio in North America.
Meanwhile, sales of Danone's Early Life Nutrition products in China fell around 15 percent, partly due to a lower birth rate in the country and high year-ago comparables.
That followed declines of 10 percent in the fourth quarter of 2018 and 20 percent in the third quarter.
China is an important source of growth for Danone, contributing about 30 percent of sales to the Early Life Nutrition business, which makes infant formula and general baby food products.
Cabanis reiterated Danone expected the business in China to return to growth in the second half of 2019, helped by a focus on more premium products and a bigger distribution range.
(Reporting by Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Mark Potter)