ZURICH -- Pharmaceutical group Novartis (IW 1000/61) reported on Wednesday a full-year net profit of $9.6 billion, up 4% from the 2011 level.

The company said it had achieved net sales of $56.7 billion.

That was a 3% drop from 2011, but still narrowly beat the expectations of analysts polled by the AWP financial agency, who had anticipated sales of $56.5 billion.

Novartis's important Pharma division meanwhile saw sales slip 1% to $32.1 billion amid swelling competition from generic drugs.

Like the rest of the pharmaceutical industry, the company has also had to deal with growing pricing pressure at a time when crisis-hit countries are increasingly being forced to slash health expenditures.

Company chief executive Joseph Jimenez meanwhile insisted that "Novartis maintained strong momentum in innovation in 2012," pointing out that the Basel-based company had secured 17 major approvals in 2012.

"Our pipeline is expected to deliver a record number of near-term approvals and filings, and ... we anticipate 14 products to reach blockbuster status by 2017, up from eight in 2012," he said.

For 2013, Novartis said it expected to see sales in line with last year in constant currencies, despite an impact of up to $3.5 billion from generic competition.

Novartis also announced on Wednesday that chairman Daniel Vasella had decided not to stand for re-election at the next annual meeting, on February 22.  He has been chairman for 17 years.

Dr. Joerg Reinhardt, who currently heads Bayer HealthCare, had been put forward for the job, Novartis said, adding that he would take over on August 1, and that vice-chairman Ulrich Lehner would lead the board in the interim.

Copyright, Agence France-Presse, 2013