Unilever hikes dividend and launches share buyback programme despite sales dip

Unilever has reported a 5% slump in first quarter sales but upped its dividend and announced a 6 billion euro (£5.2 billion) share buyback programme amid investor opposition to basing its headquarters in Rotterdam.

The consumer goods giant said turnover fell to 12.6 billion euros (£11 billion) - down 5.2% compared to the same period in 2017 - but turned attention to underlying sales growth which is stripped of foreign-exchange movements and came in at 3.4%.

That was compared to 2.9% a year earlier.

Despite the decline in turnover, Unilever - which is behind well-known household brands such as Dove, Marmite and Ben & Jerry's ice cream - said it was hiking its quarterly dividend by 8% to just over 0.387 euros per share.

Chief executive Paul Polman said this was meant to reflect "confidence" in the company's outlook, having confirmed forecasts for underlying sales growth of between 3-5% for full year 2018.

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Unilever also announced the launch of a share buyback programme which will see 6 billion euro handed back to shareholders at the start of May.

It is aiming to return after-tax proceeds from the 6.8 billion euro (£5.9 billion) sale of its spreads business to KKR.

Despite payouts for investors, Unilever shares were down around 2% in morning trading.

Steve Clayton, manager of the Hargreaves Lansdown Select UK Shares funds, said: "This was textbook stuff from Unilever, with the group's diversity of brands and markets serving it well.

"The improvement in volume growth is very welcome and investors will applaud this improved quality of growth.

"In common with many other consumer stocks, Unilever's shares have given up some ground in recent months and these results should be a welcome reminder of the long-term attractions of the business".

Unilever highlighted underlying sales growth at its emerging markets business had hit 5.1%, while volumes rose 4.3% and prices increased 0.8%.

The company did not break out UK figures, but said European turnover came in flat at 3 billion euro (£2.6 billion) for the first quarter, where the market "remained challenging."

"Weak consumer demand, price deflation in several countries and a challenge retail environment adversely affected our sales growth in the quarter, particularly in France," Unilever said.

"Competitive intensity remains high in deodorant and foods, while ice cream and skin cleaning had a good start to the year, helping our performance in Germany and the United Kingdom."

Unilever last month announced it had chosen Rotterdam over London as its new legal headquarters, sparking a backlash by top-10 shareholder Columbia Threadneedle over a lack of engagement regarding its decision.

The Financial Times reported this week that the company has set up meetings with UK-based shareholders to convince them of the benefits of the move, amid growing concerns among its largest investors.

Unilever's board has recommended shareholders vote in favour of the move, which will see Rotterdam become the firm's primary legal base and headquarters.

That vote will take place later in the year at an extraordinary meeting which is separate from its AGM set to be held on May 2.