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Updated from 9:03 a.m. EST

Oil powerhouse



keeps shattering its own records.

The world's leading super major on Monday barreled past Wall Street expectations with quarterly operating profits of $8.42 billion -- up 90% from a year ago and the highest ever in the history of the company. Fourth-quarter earnings of $1.30 a share came in well above the $1.07 consensus estimate.

For the full year, high energy prices helped push earnings up 52% to a record $25.3 billion.

"Strong operational performance in all areas of our business helped ExxonMobil capture the benefits of favorable market conditions in 2004," said ExxonMobil Chairman Lee Raymond.

Fourth-quarter revenue jumped 26% to $83.4 billion. Earnings topped expectations across the company's major business lines.

Upstream profits, boosted by strong energy prices, jumped 49% to $4.89 billion during the latest quarter. Meanwhile, the downstream and chemical divisions posted even more phenomenal growth. Strong refining margins and solid marketing results sent downstream earnings rocketing 218% to $2.34 billion. Chemical profits, lifted by strong worldwide demand, surged 162% to $1.25 billion.

Results from the downstream and chemicals divisions, especially, proved even stronger than some experts had anticipated. For example, Lehman Brothers analyst Paul Cheng was looking for downstream and chemicals earnings of just $1.45 billion and $870 million, respectively. Citigroup Smith Barney analyst Doug Leggate last week offered similar projections.

Leggate predicted that refining and marketing results would prove to be a "mixed bag," with domestic operations dragging on the division's overall performance. But U.S. downstream earnings actually more than doubled, while international downstream profits grew at a slower -- but still solid -- pace.

Moreover, Leggate had not expected another big upside surprise from the chemicals unit like the one seen in the third quarter. Rather, he called for "healthy growth" from a year ago but a slowdown sequentially. Instead chemicals earnings came in 22% higher than they did one quarter ago.

Still, Leggate views ExxonMobil as vulnerable. He is convinced that energy prices will ultimately weaken and drag the company's stock down with them.

"With oil prices still at about $48 per barrel, our near-term concerns that this will prove unsustainable beyond the U.S. winter leaves us looking for a better entry point for the shares," Leggate wrote last week, when recommending that investors sell ExxonMobil's stock.

Oil prices did fall Monday on forecasts of some mild winter weather. But the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, has warned that oil prices should remain relatively high for some time.

"The 11-nation group (said) that oil prices near $50 per barrel would remain high through the spring," the

Associated Press

reported on Monday.

ExxonMobil's stock inched up 40 cents to $51.67 -- approaching last month's 52-week high of $52.05 -- on Monday's news.