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Buffett's Berkshire cuts Tesco stake by $485 million

Trolleys are stacked outside a Tesco store in Hammersmith, west London October 3, 2012. REUTERS/Paul Hackett
Trolleys are stacked outside a Tesco store in Hammersmith, west London October 3, 2012. REUTERS/Paul Hackett

LONDON (Reuters) - Billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc has slashed its stake in Britain's Tesco by 300 million pounds ($484.75 million), weeks after the world's No.3 retailer posted disappointing half-year results.

Pressure is mounting on Tesco to reverse market share losses in its home market and fix nose diving profits in its Asian and European businesses that combined to pull group profit down for a third straight half-year earlier this month.

Berkshire, a Tesco shareholder since 2006, cut its holding to 3.98 percent from 4.98 percent on October 16, filings on the London Stock Exchange website showed. However it still remains one of its biggest investments outside the United States.

Berkshire's Marmon Group had announced on the same day that it had agreed to buy two businesses from British engineering company IMI for 690 million pounds.

The darling of the retail sector during two decades of uninterrupted earnings growth, Tesco has suffered in recent years from failed attempts to break into the United States and Japan and a costly, still unprofitable, expansion in China.

During heavy investment abroad the group has seen its market share in Britain eroded by rivals including Wal-Mart's Asda and J Sainsbury , as well as discounters Aldi and Lidl and upmarket Waitrose .

Now, 18 months into a 1 billion pound turnaround plan in Britain, involving revamped stores, new product ranges and more staff, its British sales growth still trails Sainsbury's.

Meanwhile, overseas, problems have been piling up.

First half like-for-like sales declined in all ten of its overseas markets, with particularly heavy falls in central and eastern Europe, which the company has blamed on government austerity measures, rising inflation and high unemployment.

Tesco, which lags France's Carrefour and U.S. industry leader Wal-Mart by annual sales, has said its British turnaround plan is working and that its European business would benefit from curbing store openings and focusing on stronger-growing convenience store and online markets.

Shares in the firm were flat at 372.25 pence at 0839 GMT and are up 17 percent on a year ago.

Berkshire Hathaway could not be reached for comment and Tesco were not immediately available for comment.

(Reporting by Richa Naidu in Bangalore and Neil Maidment in London; Editing by Andre Grenon and Pravin Char)

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