MetLife expects operating earnings to rise as much as 7 percent in 2012, the largest life insurer in the United States said on Monday, though its forecasts for the fourth quarter and full-year 2011 were below expectations.

MetLife expects 2011 operating earnings of $5.2 billion to $5.3 billion, or $4.83 to $4.93 per share; and 2012 operating earnings of $5.1 billion to $5.6 billion, or $4.80 to $5.20 per share.

Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S on average expected operating earnings of $4.95 per share in 2011 and $5.10 per share in 2012.

For the current quarter, the company predicted earnings of $1.16 to $1.26 per share, below the analysts' consensus of $1.28 per share.

In a slide presentation accompanying an investor call the company will hold later Monday morning, MetLife reiterated its plans to return capital to shareholders. Earlier this year the Federal Reserve blocked it from raising its dividend and buying back stock ahead of stress testing next year.

The company also reiterated its belief that it can grow earnings on a yearly basis even in a persistently low interest rate environment.

(Reporting By Ben Berkowitz; Editing by Derek Caney)