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reported fourth-quarter earnings that easily beat analysts' expectations, a result the company attributed to strong demand for its high-data-rate optical fiber and other optical communications products.

Fourth-quarter earnings rose to $314.6 million, or 34 cents a share. According to

First Call/Thomson Financial

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, analysts expected the company to earn 28 cents. The Corning, N.Y., optical networking company earned $142.2 million, or 18 cents a share, in the year-ago fourth-quarter.

Sales rose 52% to $2.1 billion from $1.4 billion last year.

For the first quarter the company expects the telecommunications market "to experience some softness due to ongoing issues with capital availability. Several customers in both our optical fiber and photonic technologies businesses have recently indicated that their order rate may be lower and more uneven than previously expected in the first half of the year."

The company added that "with the weak retail environment, we expect our customers to adjust their inventory levels of finished LCD monitors in the first quarter." As a result, the company said it now expects earnings for the first quarter of 28 cents to 31 cents a share. Corning previously expected income of 29 cents to 30 cents. With this new range, earnings per share would be up 20% to 35% from the prior year, the company said.

Corning also projected first-quarter sales of $1.9 billion to $2 billion. The company reaffirmed its earnings guidance of $1.40 to $1.43 a share for 2001 and said it expects sales to reach $9 billion for the year. According to First Call, Wall Street expects Corning to earn 30 cents in the first quarter and $1.43 for the full year.