General Motors'

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fourth-quarter earnings were roughly unchanged from a year ago, as a cornucopia of unusual items managed to salvage the bottom line underneath a 7.7% jump in year-over-year revenue.

The automaker earned $1 billion, or $2.13 a share, on revenue of $49.06 billion in the latest quarter, compared with earnings of $1 billion, or $1.71 a share, on revenue of $45.58 billion a year ago. Earnings' incongruous performance with respect to per-share earnings reflects the elimination of shares associated with Hughes Electronics, which the company split off and sold to

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during the quarter.

Special items in the latest quarter had a net effect of boosting earnings by $339 million, or 72 cents a share. They included a $1.2 billion gain from the Hughes sale, a positive adjustment of $103 million of previous accruals for excess employees at North American plants, a charge of $725 million for lump-sum payments and vehicle-discount vouchers for retirees, and a charge of $218 million related to a restructuring of GM Europe.

Excluding special items and Hughes, GM earned $838 million, or $1.47 per share, in the fourth quarter of 2003, compared with $934 million, or $1.67 per share, in the year ago period. Analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call were forecasting earnings of $1.22 a share on that basis on sales of $40.4 billion.

GM estimated first-quarter earnings of $1.75 a share, excluding items, and is targeting full-year earnings of $6 to $6.50 a share. Analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call were forecasting first-quarter earnings of $1.55 a share and a full-year profit $6.02 a share.

Profit growth at General Motors has been driven for several years by its lending operations, specifically home loans through subsidiaries such as Ditech. Earnings in the company's finance arm, GMAC, jumped 20% year-over-year to $630 million in the latest quarter, with finance, insurance and mortgage operations all reporting higher results.

Meanwhile, automotive operations continued to be squeezed amid cutthroat competition. GM's global automotive operations earned $396 million in the fourth quarter compared with $574 million a year ago, excluding items. Global market share rose to 15.2% in the latest period from 15.1% a year ago.

By region, GM North America earned $397 million in the fourth quarter of 2003, compared with $644 million in the year-ago period, and market share slipped to 28% from 28.3%. GM Europe lost $66 million in the fourth quarter of 2003, compared with a loss of $129 million a year ago, as continued material and structural cost reductions were partially offset by foreign-exchange losses, continued price pressure and unfavorable mix. For 2003, GME had a loss of $286 million, an improvement from the $549 million loss in 2002.

GM Asia Pacific was a bright spot, earning $177 million in the fourth quarter of 2003 compared with $66 million last year. But GM Latin America/Africa/Mid-East lost $112 million in the fourth quarter of 2003, compared with a loss of $7 million in the year-ago period.

GM expects global auto-industry sales to rise about 3% in 2004 to 60 million vehicles. In the United States, GM expects total U.S. industry vehicle sales of approximately 17.3 million.