(new: share price, traders, statement from analyst call)

DÜSSELDORF (dpa-AFX) - The consumer goods group Henkel expects its business to grow more slowly this year than in the past. CEO Carsten Knobel wants to increase the margin with restructuring and savings. The manager is encouraged by the recently stabilized sales volume after retailers initially refused to go along with the Group's price increases behind brands such as Persil, Pril and Pattex. In a conference with analysts, he spoke of two strong first months. After initial gains, Henkel shares fell by four percent in the afternoon.

Analysts criticized the forecast development of earnings per share (EPS). At constant exchange rates, Henkel sees the opportunity for an increase of 5 to 20 percent. One trader pointed to stronger headwinds from currency effects than previously assumed as the main reason for the share price losses. Despite the good start to the new year, the management sees greater pressure from exchange rate changes. The trader summarized that earnings per share could either remain stable or only increase by a mid-range percentage at actual exchange rates.

In addition to the earnings per share target, the DAX-listed company also wants to increase its sales and operating margin. As Henkel also announced in Düsseldorf on Monday, sales are set to increase organically by two to four percent in 2024. Henkel is excluding effects such as acquisitions, changes in exchange rates, business in Russia and hyperinflation in Turkey. The adjusted operating margin is expected to reach 12 to 13.5 percent. Analysts' recent estimates have tended to be at the lower end of the range.

Henkel CEO Knobel hopes that negative currency effects will remain at around the previous year's level and that demand from industry and consumers will pick up moderately. Sales volumes had already improved in the second half of 2023 and were then stable in the adhesives business at the end of the year. The Group had pushed through higher prices and accepted a decline in volumes in return. Henkel expects stable material costs in the current year.

The combined consumer division should also ensure more growth and lower costs. At the beginning of 2023, Henkel merged the gentle care and detergents and cleaners divisions. By the end of last year, more than 200 million euros had been saved, it was reported. In addition, the production and logistics network is to be brought up to scratch. Knobel aims to achieve a total of 525 million euros in synergies by the end of 2026.

Along the way, Henkel has shed thousands of employees. At the end of 2023, the Group had around 47,750 employees - almost seven percent fewer than a year earlier. In addition to the merger of the new consumer division, this was mainly due to the sale of the Russian business.

The withdrawal from Russia had a noticeable negative impact on turnover in 2023: Group earnings fell by around 3.9 percent to 21.5 billion euros. Adjusted for special and currency effects, however, Henkel recorded an increase of 4.2 percent.

Operating profit (EBIT) adjusted for special effects and restructuring costs rose by around a tenth to 2.56 billion euros thanks to synergies and price increases. The adjusted operating margin rose from 10.4 to 11.9 percent. The bottom line for Henkel shareholders was a good 1.3 billion euros, 4.7 percent more than in the previous year.

The Group again intends to pay a dividend of 1.85 euros per preference share and 1.83 euros per ordinary share.

Analyst James Edwardes Jones from the bank RBC praised the annual targets. In addition, the integration of the consumer division is progressing faster than expected and the Group has raised its target for net savings. Bernstein industry expert Bruno Monteyne, on the other hand, criticized the development of sales volumes./ngu/mne/nas/jha/