Swiss drug giant

Novartis

(NVS) - Get Report

reported a 14.5% increase in fourth-quarter earnings, boosted by double-digit sales growth.

Novartis said it earned $1.36 billion, or 55 cents a share, compared to $1.19 billion, or 48 cents a share, a year ago. Analysts were expecting 53 cents a share, according to Thomson First Call.

Group sales, which include pharmaceutical and consumer health sales, were up 21% to $6.7 billion.

For the year, Novartis earned $5.02 billion, or $2.03 a share, vs. $4.7 billion, or $1.88 a share, last year. Analysts had forecast $2.00 a share, based on First Call estimates. Sales surged 19% to $24.9 billion.

"2003 ended on a strong note as our sales grew dynamically, reaching record levels for the eighth time in our eight-year history," said Daniel Vasella, chief executive of Novartis, in a statement. "All of our businesses gained market share, based on our innovation-focused strategy."

The company said its cardiovascular and oncology products were the "main drivers" of pharmaceutical sales, up 18% for the year and led, in particular, by Diovan for heart failure, Gleevac for leukemia, Zometa for bone cancer, Lotrel for hypertension and Lescol for cholesterol reduction.

Novartis notched 24% sales growth in its consumer health division, fueled by its generic drug unit, Sandoz, and helped by over-the-counter medicines, CIBA Vision and medical nutrition.

Looking ahead, the drug manufacturer said it expects high single-digit sales in local currencies, driven by pharmaceutical sales, seven of which "are forecast to be blockbusters by 2008."

The company added that it expects research and development investments to increase disproportionately in 2004, but said earnings should "exceed 2003 levels."

In early trading, shares were flat at $46.95, but only slightly below a 52-week high of $47.25.