* Q4 adjusted EBIT 2.82 bln euros vs forecast 2.66 bln euros
* To pay highest-ever dividend of 2.45 euros a share
* Shares rise over 2 pct (adds fund manager, more analyst comments, background)
By Edward Taylor
STUTTGART, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Strong demand for Mercedes cars in China will help Daimler to deliver a big rise in sales and profit this year, the German luxury carmaker said on Thursday, as forecast-beating quarterly earnings lifted its shares to a 15-year high.
The company’s main Mercedes-Benz Cars division has lagged rivals Audi and BMW in terms of sales and profitability in recent years, but hot-selling new models such as the C-Class sedan are helping it to close the gap, including in China, the world’s biggest auto market.
“You can see that product initiatives from the past two years are beginning to pay off,” said Stefan Bauknecht, a fund manager at Germany’s DWS. “The new C-Class as well as the S-Class are doing well, even better than expected in some cases.”
Shares in Daimler rose more than 2 percent to a 15-year high of 84.69 euros, leading a flat German DAX index.
“Daimler is on an upward curve,” Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche told reporters, announcing the company’s biggest-ever dividend. “We plan to attain a level of earnings that has never been seen before at this company.”
Daimler, which also sells trucks and vans, is the first of the big German premium carmakers to release quarterly results, with some analysts concerned that slowing Chinese economic growth could curb a major source of demand in recent years.
There was little sign of that in Daimler’s fourth quarter, with earnings before interest, tax and one-off items jumping 10 percent to 2.82 billion euros ($3.23 billion). That beat analysts’ average forecast of 2.66 billion euros in a Reuters poll.
“It is the (Chinese) market that will determine who comes out on top in the premium segment. And Mercedes-Benz still has plenty of room to grow in China,” Zetsche said.
The proposed dividend of 2.45 euros per share, equating to 37.6 percent of net profit, was also above analysts’ 2.42 euros forecast. Daimler said it aimed to raise its payout ratio to around 40 percent in coming years.
Bankhaus Lampe analysts, who rate Daimler shares a “buy”, said the results confirmed their view the company would outperform Audi and BMW this year.
“Near faultless,” Bernstein analysts said of the results, though they rate the stock “market-perform”, saying good news is priced in.
Zetsche said cost cutting and a shift by customers to buy more profitable sports utility vehicles rather than sedans would also boost earnings.
In the fourth quarter, Mercedes-Benz’s return on sales from ongoing business rose to 8.7 percent from 8.0 percent a year before. Audi’s 2013 return on sales was 10.1 percent and BMW’s automotive operating margin was 9.4 percent.
“It is now realistic to expect Mercedes-Benz may reach a return on sales of around 10 percent,” DWS’s Bauknecht said. DWS’s parent Deutsche Asset & Wealth Management owns about 1.1 percent of Daimler’s shares.
At 1135 GMT, the shares were up 1.3 percent at 83.7 euros, beating a 1 percent rise in the European cars sector.
$1 = 0.8737 euros Additional reporting by Jan Schwartz; Editing by Georgina Prodhan and Mark Potter