Aluminium giant Alcoa last night reported a $2.3 billion loss in the fourth quarter mainly due to a $1.7 billion write-down tied to smelting acquisitions.

The hefty loss compared with a profit of $242m the same time the year before and came on revenues of $5.59 billion, below the $5.77 billion expected by analysts.

Excluding special items, profits were $40m, or four cents per share, three cents below expectations. 

Alcoa earnings are often viewed as the unofficial kick-off of the quarterly earnings season. Results from JPMorgan Chase, General Electric and other companies will be released next week.

Alcoa chief executive Klaus Kleinfeld characterised the operating performance as "strong" and said the company had made progress in building its "value-added" businesses, such as producing light-weight aluminium increasingly desired by the car industry due to fuel economy concerns.

Alcoa projects 7% aluminium growth in 2014, the same as in 2013. Sectors expected to see growth include aerospace, automotive and building and construction.

The company disclosed a $1.7 billion write-down on 1998 and 2000 acquisitions that included smelting assets. The value of these assets have diminished due to lower aluminium prices and other "unfavourable" business trends, Alcoa said.

Aluminium prices fell 7.2% in the quarter compared with the the same time the previous year, according to Alcoa data. 

The company's earnings were also hit by a $243m charge to settle criminal charges announced earlier yesterday that an Alcoa-led joint venture paid Bahrain officials huge bribes to secure business.

Alcoa and the joint venture, Alcoa World Alumina, agreed to pay $384m in to settle one charge of violating the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Alcoa said it had cooperated with the investigation and "welcomes the resolution of this legacy legal matter with the US government."