Autoliv, the world’s biggest producer of seat belts and airbags, posted higher than expected fourth-quarter sales and profit on Thursday and forecast turnover and earnings growth of at least 15% in the current quarter, according to Reuters.

Reuters said Sweden-based Autoliv’s pre-tax profit increased 25% year-on-year to $SU76.7 million, against a market consensus of $73 million and a figure of $48.5 million in the fourth quarter of 2001.

The group’s October-December sales grew by a faster than expected 22 percent to $1.18 billion, beating the mean forecast of $1.1 billion in a Reuters poll of analysts.

Reuters noted that the weakening of the dollar accounted for almost one third of the company’s fourth-quarter sales increase and contributed $0.02 of full-year earnings per share of $1.84.

“Assuming that the exchange rates at the middle of January prevail and that light vehicle production decreases only marginally, Autoliv’s sales and earnings for the first quarter 2003 are expected to increase by at least 15% compared to the same quarter of 2002,” the company said, according to Reuters.

Reuters added that Autoliv forecast a decline of between 2% and 4% in full-year 2003 light vehicle production in Europe, North America and Japan, compared with a 2% increase in the fourth quarter.

“Due to the risk for international conflicts and other uncertainties, it is currently unusually difficult to forecast sales,” Autoliv said, according to Reuters.

The news agency said Autoliv’s operating margin, or operating profit as a percentage of sales, improved to 7.5% in the fourth quarter from a comparable 6.3% a year ago, with return on equity up to 9.4% from 8.4%.

Autoliv’s liabilities increased by one third year-on-year to $1.19 billion, Reuters said, corresponding to 27% of full-year sales, but net debt to equity decreased to 42% from 55%.