Exxon Mobil sets annual profit record

No. 1 oil company posts mark despite lower fourth-quarter income.

NEW YORK (Reuters) -- Exxon Mobil Corp. posted the largest annual profit in U.S. history Thursday, even though fourth-quarter earnings fell on lower natural gas prices and shrinking gasoline margins.

For the year, Exxon Mobil earned $39.5 billion, up from its previous record $36.1 billion in 2005.

Net income in the fourth quarter slipped to $10.25 billion, or $1.76 a share, from $10.71 billion, or $1.71 a share, a year earlier.

Excluding one-time items, Exxon Mobil (Charts), the world's largest publicly traded company, earned $1.69 a share. The average earnings forecast of analysts polled by Reuters Estimates was $1.51 a share.

Revenue in the quarter fell 9.4 percent to $90.03 billion.

Earnings from exploration and production activities were $6.22 billion, down $818 million from a year earlier due to the natural gas price drop and decreased volumes driven by lower demand in Europe.

Earnings from refining and marketing operations totaled $1.86 billion, down $430 million due to lower margins.

Oil prices in the fourth quarter dropped from the record levels hit in July but were still robust, hovering around $60 a barrel - roughly in line with year-earlier levels.

Natural gas prices, on the other hand, were sharply lower than in 2005. According to Reuters data, the average U.S. natural gas price was about $6.61 per million British thermal unit in the fourth quarter, down from $12.77 a year earlier.

Since the end of the 2006 third quarter, Exxon Mobil shares are up 10.4 percent, outperforming the Chicago Board Options Exchange's oil index, which has risen 8.8 percent.

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