By Sabrina Valle

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Exxon Mobil Corp on Thursday signaled a return to annual profit for 2021 as stronger oil and gas prices drove as much as $1.9 billion in operating gains in the fourth quarter.

The largest U.S. oil producer issued a snapshot of final quarter results that showed it expects sequentially higher operating profit in its upstream businesses, but potentially flat to lower operating profits in downstream and chemicals . Official results are due out Feb. 1.

In 2020, Exxon notched a historical $22.4 billion loss on writedowns from falling oil prices and lower refining margins. Cost cuts coupled with energy price gains have allowed it to pay down debt and plot a share buyback program next year.

Analysts forecast an adjusted profit of $1.76 per share for the quarter, according to Refinitiv IBES data, compared to 3 cents a share excluding writedowns a year-ago.

(Reporting by Sabrina Valle; Editing by David Gregorio)