Novartis AG(NVS) - Get Report missed analysts expectations with its fourth quarter earnings but launched a $5 billion share buyback program and said it may sell its Alcon eye care unit.

The Basel-Switzerland based pharmaceutical company said core net income for the three months ending in December came in at $2.66 billion, marginally lower than the $2.7 billion forecast in a Thomson Reuters poll. The group also said it considering a "range" of options to boost shareholder value, including the sale of the Alcon division which generted around $5.8 billion in sales last year.

"Novartis delivered a solid performance in 2016, absorbing Gleevec US loss of exclusivity while investing in key launches and the Alcon Division turnaround," said CEO Joseph Jimenez. "Cosentyx reached blockbuster status in 2016, and the conditions are now in place for Entresto sales to accelerate in 2017."

"We made major strides in advancing our pipeline, executing our bolt-on M&A strategy and implementing our new focused organization," he added. "Today we are proposing an increase in our dividend and initiating a share buyback of up to $5 billion. Additionally, we are reviewing options for the Alcon Division to maximize shareholder value."

Novartis shares rose modestly in early Zurich trading, adding 0.3% to Tuesday's close to change hands at Sfr69.70 each, trimming their three-month loss to around 6.5%. That compares to a 2.17% fall for the Stoxx Europe TMI Pharmaceuticals index.

Novartis said 2017 sales would likely be "broadly in-line" with 2016, where full-year revenues were reported at $48.518 billion (down 2% from 2015). Core operating income in 2017, the company said, would also likely suffer a "low single digit decline", again largely unchanged from 2016. 

Alcon's net sales in the fourth quarter were $1.4 billion, down 2% from the previous period, and the unit generated an operating loss of $120 million compared to a small $29 million profit in the final four months of 2015. 

"Novartis is considering options for the Alcon Division," the company said. "The review will explore all options, ranging from retaining the business to separation via a capital markets transaction (e.g. IPO or spin-off), in order to determine how to best maximize value for our shareholders. The review will be conducted during the course of 2017 and in a manner such that Alcon Division associates can fully focus on the unit's return to growth."