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Holiday sales critical for Nokia after weak quarter

Picture shows a Nokia logo at a shop in Warsaw, January 26, 2012. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
Picture shows a Nokia logo at a shop in Warsaw, January 26, 2012. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

By Ritsuko Ando

HELSINKI (Reuters) - Nokia is expected to report another quarterly loss next week, raising the stakes for its holiday-season sales battle with smartphone rivals Apple and Samsung.

The new top-of-the-range Lumia 820 and 920 smartphones that are vital to Nokia's survival arrive in stores in November, just as people start buying presents for Christmas and other holidays.

Powered by Microsoft's Windows software, they face tough competition from Apple's new iPhone and Samsung's Galaxy SIII.

Analysts said Nokia chief executive Stephen Elop will need to set out a convincing marketing strategy for the Lumia phones, including more details on sales partnerships with mobile network operators, when the company announces its results on October 18.

Once the world's biggest mobile phone maker, Nokia fell behind rivals in smartphones and has racked up more than 3 billion euros in operating losses in the last 18 months.

The Finnish company is pinning its hopes on a partnership with Microsoft to use its Windows software which powers around just 3 percent of the global smartphone market, compared with Google's Android which has cornered two-thirds of the market.

Most analysts have written off Nokia's third quarter as a weak one, without the new Lumia models to help compensate for a drop in sales of older models with running its legacy Symbian software.

"So we're looking at a sort of vacuum in Q3. In addition to that, you have the Symbian volumes coming down very rapidly," said Swedbank analyst Hakan Wranne, who has a "buy" rating on the stock.

On average, analysts forecast Nokia to post an underlying operating loss of 320 million euros ($414 million) from its handset business, according to a Reuters poll.

On a group level the net loss is expected to surge to 780 million euros, or 21 cents per share, from 68 million euros, or 2 cents a share, a year earlier.

WOBBLY START

Nokia's shares have risen more than 45 percent from a year-low of 1.33 euros in July and some analysts say even modest sales success for the new Lumia phones could lift shares higher. They are still down around 70 percent since the Microsoft deal in February 2011.

"If they manage to take say 5 percent of the smartphone market and show just half-decent margins... well then the stock looks attractive at current levels," said Wranne who has a target price of 2.80 euros on Nokia shares.

Nokia's Windows phones are forecast to have made up about 2 percent of global smartphone sales in the third quarter.

If Nokia fails to show Lumia volumes picking up by early next year, many investors and analysts have said the company may need to change its strategy -- as well as its leader.

Of 30 analysts surveyed by Reuters, nine had a "sell" rating on the stock and seven had a "buy." The rest recommended a "hold".

The Lumia phones had a wobbly launch in September, disappointing investors who complained about a lack of detail on pricing and partnerships with the network operators that distribute and subsidize phones.

The company has since announced a partnership with AT&T in the United States and some prices in Europe, but analysts said Elop needs to convince investors it has the right partnerships and sales incentives in place to promote Lumia phones.

"It will be a tough proposition," said James Crawshaw, analyst at S&P Capital IQ Equity, who rates the stock a "hold".

Another concern is that Nokia may run out of cash. Its cash position is forecast to fall to 3.4 billion euros at the end of the third quarter from 4.2 billion three months earlier.

Nokia has been cutting spending and selling assets such as its Vertu luxury handset division. It is also considering selling and leasing back its waterfront headquarters in Espoo, a short drive from Helsinki.

Spreads on Nokia's bonds show many investors are wary. Five-year credit default swaps on Nokia's debt have climbed to 1,068 points, implying a probability of default around 61 percent.

($1=0.7726 euros)

(Additional reporting by Tarmo Virki; Editing by Erica Billingham)

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