The only major drama in


(MRK) - Get Report

forthcoming financial report on Thursday will be how much of the loss caused by pulling Vioxx from the market will be assigned to the third quarter and how much will be placed in the fourth quarter.

What else can Merck say after announcing that it was removing the arthritis and pain relief pill due to

increased risk of cardiovascular problems among patients who used the drug for more than 18 months?

And how well can analysts make their predictions since Merck has removed third-quarter guidance?

"Merck has essentially pre-released

earnings for the rest of the year," said Albert Rauch, an analyst for A.G. Edwards, in a recent report to clients. He was referring to the company's comment Sept. 30 when it said withdrawing Vioxx would chop 50 cents to 60 cents from the full-year earnings per share. The company said it had been comfortable with a pre-Vioxx withdrawal estimate on Wall Street that EPS would be in the range of $3.11 to $3.17.

Needless to say, Rauch, who has a hold rating on the stock, and other analysts have been paring their predictions. Rauch cut his third quarter estimate to 75 cents from 82 cents and his fourth quarter estimate to 26 cents from 72 cents.

For the quarter ended Sept. 30, the consensus view among analysts polled by Thomson First Call is for earnings per share of 71 cents, with a range of 82 cents to 42 cents.

For the fourth quarter, the average EPS estimate is 34 cents, with a range of 64 cents to 10 cents. And for the full year, the average estimate is $2.57 with a range of $2.69 to $2.41. Rauch expects a full year EPS of $2.53. (He doesn't own shares; his firm doesn't have an investment banking relationship).

All of the Vioxx-related activity, however, hasn't significantly changed the ratings of the analyst community, most of whom are neutral about Merck. Since the Vioxx announcement, three analysts have raised their ratings to neutral, and one analyst cut his rating to neutral. Perhaps they believe that if you liked the stock at $45.07, the closing price on the day before Merck said it was recalling Vioxx, you'll love it in the low $30s, which is where the stock has meandered during October.

What's Next?

Merck may try to talk Thursday about existing products and its research pipeline, but it can expect most analysts' questions to focus on the Vioxx aftermath.

When will Merck set up a reserve ? and how much ? for the flood of legal claims against the company? Even though it is too early to predict Merck's legal bill, said a recent report from Standard & Poor's Corp, "at the very least, Vioxx-related litigation will be a major distraction."

Given that the company has been wrestling with

current and upcoming patent expirations on several key products, executives will be hard pressed to answer how Merck can fill the new revenue chasm caused by canceling Vioxx, which produced $2.5 billion last year.

And what happens to Arcoxia, the offspring-of-Vioxx product that has been approved in 47 countries but is still under review by the Food and Drug Administration? Analysts have been scaling back their predictions about when the FDA might approve the drug. The agency is supposed to comment at the end of the month.

Merck also will have to answer questions that, until recently, would have seem far-fetched. Is the dividend safe? Is Merck's top-tier credit rating heading for a downgrade?

Some insight into Merck's financial fate is in the recent S&P report. The firm recently downgraded Merck's outlook to negative from stable. But it also kept the company's AAA credit rating.

Merck is one of three drug companies with AAA credit ratings, and S&P said it was the weakest before the Vioxx recall. Merck fares poorly in comparison to

Johnson & Johnson

(JNJ) - Get Report

, which has a more diversified product portfolio, and


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, which has stronger products and a more promising research pipeline.

The ratings firm noted that once AAA-rated companies slip in their credit rating, "they rarely recover." If Merck is downgraded in the near future, S&P "does not see the ratings going lower than AA," which is still solid.

S&P added that it has been worried that Merck's pre-Vioxx woes ? patent expirations of big products, the failure of several experimental drugs in late stage clinical trials ? would make Merck "more acquisitive and financially aggressive to beef up its product line."

Noting that Merck hasn't tried to make a big acquisition yet, S&P said it couldn't help but wonder if the post-Vioxx Merck would change its strategy "or how such a change would affect the company's financial profile."

Despite the Vioxx withdrawal, however, S&P noted that Merck "still has a superior business profile." The company has $13.4 billion in cash and investments and $6 billion in debt. Merck has "considerable financial flexibility within the confines of its rating category to conduct acquisitions and improve its business profile," S&P said.