March 7, 2019 / 8:05 AM / 2 months ago

UPDATE 2-Countrywide hit by Brexit effect on housing market

* Real estate market slowdown to hit H1 profit by 3-5 mln

* Peel Hunt downgrades stock to “sell”, cut FY estimate

* Shares down around 15 percent (Adds CEO, analyst comment, debt details)

By Arathy S Nair and Abinaya Vijayaraghavan

March 7 (Reuters) - Countrywide Plc on Thursday forecast flat earnings in 2019, citing uncertainty in the housing market due to Brexit, sending shares in Britain’s largest estate agent down around 15 percent.

The cooling real estate market has compounded problems for the company, which has struggled to recover from a botched 2015 restructuring that led to four profit warnings and a share issue.

“People are reluctant to put their houses on the market and homes are taking longer to sell,” Executive Chairman Peter Long said.

He said there were fewer homes and fewer buyers, particularly in London and South East, and that investors and occupiers were waiting on the sidelines in the commercial market also because of Brexit uncertainty.

Countrywide, which runs over 60 brands including Hamptons International, Bairstow Eves and Bridgfords, expects the slowdown to hit first-half earnings by about 3 million to 5 million pounds ($6.57 million).

The company also said the outlook for flat full-year profit was contingent on recovering the first-half shortfall in its traditionally stronger second half.

In 2018, adjusted earnings halved to 32.7 million pounds, broadly in line with the company’s forecast last month.

Last year, Countrywide launched a three-year plan to rebuild expertise and staffing levels in its sales and lettings and financial services businesses after its 2015 restructuring led to the loss of experienced staff.

Countrywide said this process was largely complete.

“We have got now the basic ingredients for building back our business,” Long said.

“A BRIDGE TOO FAR”

Analysts expressed scepticism about Countrywide’s 2019 forecasts given difficult market conditions and low visibility on debt reduction.

Peel Hunt analysts said: “Generating flat EBITDA in FY19 is reliant on a recovery in H2, which given the current economic uncertainty could be a bridge too far.”

The brokerage downgraded the stock to “sell” from “hold” and cut its full-year core earnings estimate by nearly a third to 30 million pounds.

The company’s shares were down 14.5 percent at 8.98 pence at 1030 GMT.

Countrywide’s debt, which rose over the last four years due to deals, dividends, share buybacks and a fall in profit, stood at 71 million at the end of the year.

Separately, Countrywide said the chair of its remuneration committee, Cathy Turner, would step down at the end of April.

Last year, the company had to abandon plans to revamp its incentive package for directors after meetings with top investors. ($1 = 0.7612 pounds) (Reporting by Abinaya Vijayaraghavan in Bengaluru; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta and Jane Merriman)

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