DETROIT -- General Motors on Tuesday posted a flat quarterly profit, but earnings excluding one-time items beat Wall Street forecasts, driving up the automaker's stock price in pre-market trade.
GM posted fourth-quarter net earnings of $1.01 billion versus a profit of $1.02 billion in the previous fourth quarter.
For 2003, GM earned $3.8 billion, up from $1.7 billion in 2002.
Excluding a gain from the sale of its stake in Hughes Electronics Corp. and other one-time items, GM earned $674 million, or $1.41 per share, down from $850 million, or $1.62 per share. That topped analysts' expectations for a profit of $1.21 per share, according to Reuters Research, a unit of Reuters Plc.
GM also set a first-quarter earnings outlook that was above Wall Street estimates. The Detroit automaker said it expects first-quarter earnings of $1.75 per share, excluding special items and at current dilution levels. That compares with analysts' forecasts of $1.42 per share, according to a Reuters Research survey.
GM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Rick Wagoner said the automaker expects stronger U.S. market share this year. Last year, GM's U.S. market share fell to 28 percent from 28.3 percent in 2002.
"As we continue our aggressive new-product cadence, we are optimistic about increasing market share in 2004," Wagoner said in a statement.
GM Europe lost $286 million for the year, compared to a loss of $549 million in 2002. Despite narrowing the loss, Wagoner said, "we fell short of our financial targets." GM had targeted a range between break-even and a $200 million loss for European operations in 2003.
But GM Europe's market share for the year was up, rising from 9.2 percent in 2002 to 9.4 percent.
In the fourth quarter, GM Europe lost $66 million, compared to a loss of $129 million in the fourth quarter of 2002. The red ink includes a $218 million restructuring charge in the fourth quarter. Most of that went for separation pay for laid-off workers, Vice Chairman John Devine said.
Also boosting earnings next year, GM expects global auto-industry sales to climb about 3 percent in 2004 to a record 60 million vehicles. Total U.S. new vehicle sales are expected to rise to 17.3 million this year, GM said.
In the fourth quarter, GM recorded a gain of $1.2 billion for its sale of its stake in Hughes, which was completed in December and added some needed cash to its U.S. pension funds. GM also posted a one-time gain of $103 million for an adjustment to previous accruals for job cuts.
Partially offsetting those gains were charges of $725 million to cover costs and employee payments agreed to under its new contract with the the United Auto Workers union, as well as $218 million for restructuring costs at GM's European operations.
GM's global automotive operations earned $396 million in the fourth quarter, down from $574 million in the prior-year quarter. Profit from GM's core North American auto operations fell to $397 million from $644 million, hurt by a drop in new car production and higher costs for sales incentives.
Based on its total earnings last year, GM said it expects to pay profit-sharing checks to about 125,000 hourly U.S. workers this year, with an average payment of about $170 per employee.
Ford Motor Co. is scheduled to release its fourth-quarter earnings on Thursday.