Avon Products Inc. , the world's largest direct seller of beauty products, on Wednesday said its fourth-quarter net earnings tumbled 44 percent, due to charges for facility closures and severance payments. 

The company posted net earnings of $110 million, or 47 cents a share, including a one-time charge, compared with $197.5 million, or 81 cents in the year-earlier period. 

Avon said it is still targeting 2002 earnings of $2.30 a share, assuming that economic and currency issues in Argentina do not spread to other Latin markets. It expects high single-digit earnings growth in the first half of the year, with double-digit growth in the second half, it said. 

On an operating basis, the company posted earnings per share of 74 cents, up from 67 cents a year ago, in line with analysts expectations of between 74 cents and 75 cents, with a mean estimate of 74 cents, according to Thomson Financial/First Call. 

Sales rose 6 percent, to $1.74 billion, from $1.65 billion a year ago, boosted by the best U.S. growth it has recorded in a decade. The U.S. growth reflected robust holiday gift sales and strength of its Wellness line, the Little Black Dress fragrance launch, and its new Pure 02 skin care product. 

But Latin America, which accounts for about a third of Avon's business, has been worse than expected due to weak economic conditions. 

Sales in Latin America fell 4 percent, with a 7 percent decline in operating profits during the quarter, reflecting weak currencies in the southern part of the region, Avon said. 

In Argentina, which has been plagued by economic turmoil and the devaluation of the peso, sales and operating profits "declined significantly," Avon said. 

Looking ahead, Chief Executive Andrea Jung said the company feels it can "successfully manage currency translation risk in Argentina," and it is assuming that a "reasonable level" of economic activity will be restored there during the year. 

The company's $97.4 million pretax fourth-quarter charge was primarily for facilities closure costs and work force reduction programs related to cost-cutting initiatives it first announced last May. 

In early Wednesday trading, Avon shares were down 18 cents, or 0.4 percent, at $48.52 on the new York Stock Exchange. The shares have traded in a 52-week range of $50.15 and $35.55.