By Sabrina Valle

HOUSTON (Reuters) -Chevron Corp on Friday reported a fourth quarter profit that missed Wall Street estimates and offered a weak outlook for this year’s oil and gas production, sending its shares lower.

The first major oil company to report fourth quarter results posted earnings of $5.1 billion, or $2.65 a share. Analysts had forecast a $3.12 per share profit, Refinitiv showed, expecting a bigger boost from rebounding prices.

The below-par profit came despite higher oil and gas prices that were expected to lift results for the top energy companies. Exxon Mobil Corp reports fourth quarter earnings on Tuesday and Shell Plc on Thursday.

“The miss was driven by international upstream primarily,” said Biraj Borkhataria, deputy head of European research at RBC Capital Markets. “Downstream earnings also disappointed, with weakness across both refining and chemicals.”

Chevron’s oil and gas production fell 5% to 3.12 million barrels per day (bpd) with the largest drop coming from the loss of Indonesian and Thai production licenses. It also took a $575 million hit from timing of bookings in its liquefied natural gas (LNG) business after production declines in Australia and impairments.

Full-year earnings of $15.6 billion were the best since 2014 and compare with a $5.5 billion loss in 2020. Chevron, as other major oil producers, deeply cut spending as the COVID-19 pandemic slashed oil demand. It cut capital investments by about half since 2019, to $11.7 billion last year.

Investors had this week pushed Chevron shares to an all-time high on expectations that rising oil prices would drive earnings. Shares were down 4.6% at $129.12 in midday trading.

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“A weak performance across the board,” Jefferies analysts wrote, adding that a forecast for dim production this year would disappoint investors.

Chevron projected oil and gas production would be flat to 3% less this year due contract expirations in Indonesia and Thailand that it no longer viewed as competitive. It expects production to increase this year in the Permian shale basin, the largest U.S. oilfield, and in Australia.

“I expect 2022 will be even better for cash returns to shareholders,” Chief Executive Michael Wirth said in a conference call. “We’re more capital and cost efficient.”

Quarterly operating results were, however, below analyst forecasts in its oil and gas production and refining businesses. Operating profit was $5.2 billion, up from $501 million in the same period a year ago, but below analyst expectations for about $6.6 billion operating profit.

Fourth quarter earnings from downstream and chemicals were $760 million, down from the $1.31 billion in the third quarter but up from a loss of $338 million year-on-year. The business suffered lower chemical margins and volumes, Chevron said.

But better results than a year ago has enabled Chevron to increase shareholder returns and pay down debt.

There was “an impressive $6 billion reduction” in outstanding debt, said Peter Speer, senior vice-president at credit-rating firm Moody’s Corp.

The company said it will buy back about $1.25 billion in shares during the first quarter, at the higher end of its guidance. Chevron this week raised its dividend by 6% to $1.42 per share.

(Reporting by Sabrina Valle, Gary McWilliams and Shariq Khan; Editing by Edmund Blair and Marguerita Choy)