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Charges Smoke Altria

Fourth-quarter earnings fell 5.9% from last year due to a slew of items.
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fourth-quarter earnings were dragged down 5.9% by a maze of one-time charges, and its outlook for 2005 came in about where Wall Street expected.

The maker of Marlboro cigarettes and parent of Kraft Foods said Wednesday it earned 96 cents a share for the quarter, down from $1.02 a share logged in the same quarter last year. The results include a variety of one-time charges totaling 12 cents a share.

Excluding the charges, Altria beat Wall Street's expectations with earnings of $1.08 a share, compared to the consensus estimate of $1.06 reported by Thomson First Call.

The shares were recently down 19 cents, or 0.3%, to $62.10.

"On balance, our business fundamentals were solid in 2004," said Altria's chairman and chief executive, Louis C. Camilleri, in a statement. "I am particularly pleased that our momentum improved as the year unfolded, proof that we have begun to reap the benefits of our investments in marketing."

For 2005, the company expects to earn between $4.96 and $5.05 a share, based on current exchange rates. That estimate includes 12 cents a share in one-time charges and excludes 3 cents a share in earnings from discontinued operations. Excluding the items, Wall Street is currently expecting earnings of $5.14 a share, according to consensus estimates.

"We enter 2005 in a strong competitive, financial and strategic position," Camilleri said in a statement. "This is not to say that we do not continue to face challenges across all our businesses, but I believe that we are better armed to deal with them than we have been for several years."

Fourth-quarter revenue at Altria increased 8.8% to $22.4 billion, due to exchange rate effects totaling $679 million from the declining dollar, and to increases in domestic tobacco, international tobacco and North American food sales. Operating income decreased 4.4% to $3.4 billion, thanks largely to a restructuring at Kraft and an increase in the provision for airline industry exposure at Philip Morris Capital Corp.

For the full year, Altria's earnings increased 3.3% from 2003 to $9.4 billion, including $210 million, or 10 cents a share, in charges. However, operating income dropped 3.7% to $15.2 billion, weighed down by asset impairments and restructuring costs. Sales rose 10.2% to $89.6 billion, due primarily to favorable currency effects of $3.3 billion and to increases from Altria's tobacco and North American food businesses.

During the year, the company raised its dividend 7.4% to an annualized rate of $2.92 a share.