Express Scripts

(ESRX)

left some investors feeling hungry the day before Thanksgiving.

In a bland announcement, the pharmacy benefit manager pledged on Wednesday to serve up 2005 earnings of $4.50 to $4.65 a share. But some on Wall Street -- expecting profits of $4.61 already -- viewed the guidance as skimpy. Many were banking on 20% earnings growth that now requires the company to beat its own expectations and hit the high end of its projected range.

Moreover, the PBM foresees profit growth slowing from recent levels until the final quarter of next year. Analysts felt less than satisfied by the news.

Kevin Berg of Credit Suisse First Boston called the slowdown "pretty significant." And Wachovia analyst Eric Veiel -- who downgraded Express Scripts Tuesday

in anticipation of bad news -- noted that the company has never before seen earnings growth slow sequentially in the first quarter of the year.

Express Scripts downplayed the projected decline as just "a couple of pennies." But the company also conceded that it has faced demands for lower prices and better services, that it and must continue to grow more efficient as a result.

Indeed, the company is counting on several improvements -- including increased productivity, cost-management initiatives and capital structure enhancements -- to deliver on its promises. Aggressive share repurchases, expected to consume most of the company's cash flow, are also baked into next year's guidance.

A spike in legal reserves -- like that seen in the third quarter -- is not. The company recently set aside $25 million to help cover costs associated with investigations and lawsuits. It has become a target this year of New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and a slew of other state prosecutors.

Spitzer has accused Express Scripts of improperly profiting from its New York state contract. The company has denied any wrongdoing. It followed up by saying it had "nothing new to add" about the investigation on Wednesday.

Shares of Express Scripts tumbled 3.3% to $69.90 in early trading.