Johnson & Johnson ( JNJ) unveils its first-quarter earnings Tuesday with most analysts in a holding pattern, saying they are more concerned about long-term growth prospects than the January-through-March period results.

The consensus of analysts polled by Thomson First Call calls for first-quarter earnings of $2.39 billion, or 80 cents a share, on revenue of $11.36 billion, compared to $2.1 billion, or 69 cents a share, on revenue of $9.8 billion a year ago.

Wall Street predictions for J&J reveal mushy support for the company. Twelve analysts have hold ratings on the stock, according to Thomson First Call. Seven recommend buying shares; one analyst says sell.

The company's share price reflects those views: it's been easing downward for most of the last 12 months. On Monday, the stock gained 33 cents, or 0.6%, to $51.20, much closer to its 52-week low of $48.05 than its 52-week high of $57.99.

One analyst with a so-so view of J&J is Tao Levy of Deutsche Bank Securities, who has a hold rating on the stock and an 81-cent earnings-per-share estimate for the first quarter. Levy expects first-quarter sales of $11.37 billion.

The first quarter should be OK but J&J's growth "should begin to materially slow down" during the second half of 2004 and in 2005 and 2006 due to increased competition for its Cypher drug-coated stent for heart disease patients as well as for its major drugs, including the Procrit/Eprex franchise for anemia, and Remicade for both rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's Disease. (Levy doesn't own shares, but Deutsche Bank Securities has had an investment banking relationship with J&J in the last 12 months.)

Another lukewarm view comes from J.P. Morgan's Michael Weinstein, who reaffirmed his neutral rating in a Monday research note. He likes the first quarter, predicting an 81-cent EPS, but as the year unfolds, "J&J's outlook turns notably less appealing," he said.

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