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Novartis CEO keen to keep dividend, big M&A not likely

ZURICH (Reuters) - Novartis is keen to maintain its dividend and is looking to boost growth via mid-sized acquisitions, though big deals are unlikely, the Swiss drugmaker's chief executive said in a newspaper interview on Sunday.

Like many of its rivals, Novartis is struggling to grow in the face of patent expiries on key drugs, particularly Diovan for high blood pressure. It is relying on new products, like multiple sclerosis pill Gilenya, to fill the gap.

In 2010, Novartis made headlines when it wrapped up its buyout of the remainder of U.S. eyecare group Alcon for $12.9 billion. The Basel-based firm in May agreed to buy Fougera Pharmaceuticals, a maker of generic dermatology products, for $1.53 billion in cash.

"Defending the dividend is a priority," CEO Joe Jimenez told the SonntagsZeitung. "We want to stick with a good dividend yield in the future."

Novartis paid a dividend of 2.25 Swiss francs a share last year, a yield of 3.9 percent.

"Then we want to conduct medium-sizes acquisitions to boost our growth," he also said. "In the foreseeable future we're most probably not going to do any mega takeovers."

Novartis saw annual revenues of $5.6 billion from Diovan, Jimenez said, and the drug's loss of exclusivity in Europe and the United states meant the firm would face three "very challenging quarters".

No new cost-control programme would be announced, though some ad-hoc savings could be made over time, Jimenez said, as other treatments coming on line would help make up for the fall: "Our sales should rise markedly in the second-half of 2013".

Currency effects would shave 3-4 percent off operating income this year, he said, reiterating what he said at the time of the firm's first-half results in July.

At the time, Novartis confirmed its full-year outlook for net sales in constant currencies to meet those of 2011.

Although he declined to comment on the third quarter, Jimenez said: "As I said at the presentation of the half-year figures: We're on course."

Cancer is an increasingly important therapeutic area for Novartis, which faces stiff competition in the field from cross-town rival Roche Holding AG, the world leader in oncology and in which it holds a third of the shares.

"We're holding on to our stake, since it's a strategic decision and so far we've done well with it," he said. "Should Roche want to raise equity, we'd have to agree with that."

(This story corrects CEO reference to currency effects to full year from third quarter in ninth paragraph)

(Reporting by Catherine Bosley; Editing by Mark Potter)

(catherine.bosley@thomsonreuters.com; +41 58 306 7461)

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