updated 2/12/2004 8:16:42 AM ET 2004-02-12T13:16:42

Fast food giant Yum! Brands Inc. posted a 24 percent gain in fourth-quarter profits, powered by high international sales and an uptick in Mexican food sales. The company also raised its outlook for the year.

Yum! reported net income of $214 million for the fourth-quarter, or 70 cents a diluted share, up from $172 million, or 56 cents a diluted share, a year earlier.

Excluding a 5-cent charge for special items, the latest earnings of 65 cents per share were 3 cents a share better than the forecast of analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call.

The fourth-quarter earnings bested that of the previous reporting period, when Yum! posted a 12 percent gain in earnings, or 53 cents per share, for the quarter ending Sept. 6. The company attributed that gain to surging pizza and Mexican food sales and an expanding international business.

The company credits the fourth-quarter gains to, among other things, a 25 percent growth in international restaurant franchise and license fees, a 4 percent increase in same-store sales at Taco Bell and an 18 percent increase in the number of U.S. multi-brand restaurants.

The Louisville-based company also finished the quarter with its lowest debt in company history — $2.1 billion.

Jonathan Blum, senior vice president at Yum! Brands, said "explosive growth" in China and better than expected sales in the Middle East fueled the international sales. Those sales rose despite a SARS outbreak in Asia and the war in Iraq, Blum said.

Yum! had a U.S. profit of $241 million for the fourth-quarter and $812 million for the full year.

Blum said Yum! looks to increase earnings per share by 10 percent for the first quarter of 2004.

Along with Taco Bell, the company's brands also include Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silver's and A&W All-American Food Restaurants.

In trading on the New York Stock Exchange, Yum! shares were up 53 cents to close at $33.71.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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