(Adds dividend, share reaction)
JERUSALEM, March 26 (Reuters) - Gazit-Globe, Israel's largest real estate investment company, reported on Wednesday higher quarterly profit and said Europe remains the best region for new investment.
Gazit-Globe earned 238 million shekels ($68.3 million) in the fourth quarter, up from 224 million a year earlier and boosted by both organic and external growth.
Rental income declined 7 percent to 1.27 billion shekels, but fell 1 percent excluding the effect of changes in exchange rates. Funds from operation rose 7 percent to 147 million shekels.
Israel's shekel appreciated sharply in 2013 versus the dollar, Canadian dollar and euro.
Net operating income (NOI), which reflects the group's core business, slipped 6 percent to 855 million shekels but was flat excluding exchange rate changes.
For all of 2013, same-property NOI grew 3.4 percent excluding exchange rate changes.
Gazit-Globe operates in the United States through Equity One and in Canada through First Capital Reality Inc . It is also the largest shareholder in Finland's Citycon and together with Citigroup controls shopping mall developer Atrium European Real Estate.
"What we are seeing today are opportunities in major cities in Europe," Roni Soffer, Gazit-Globe's president, told Reuters. "It's more expensive to buy the same asset in North America."
Gazit-Globe, which has a market value of $2.2 billion, focuses on supermarket-anchored shopping centres in major urban areas, where growth is often double or triple the country's overall rate.
"We hope to see opportunities of major shopping centres in Europe in 2014 and 2015," Soffer said.
In particular, the company is targeting the Nordic region, the Czech Republic and Poland, he said.
Still, Soffer said the company was continuing to grow in all regions while Gazit-Globe was starting to build operations in southern Brazil.
It has improved its balance sheet in 2013 by selling $2 billion of lesser quality assets. Soffer added that the firm's debt burden fell, saving the company on bond payments.
Gazit-Globe will pay a quarterly dividend of 0.45 shekel per share, representing an annualised payout in 2014 of 1.80 shekels.
Its shares were down 0.4 percent in afternoon trading in Tel Aviv.
$1 = 3.4844 Israeli Shekels Reporting by Steven Scheer