On Wall Street, no big drug company earns as much sweeping neutrality as Merck ( MRK).

Maybe it's because Merck had four drugs -- for depression, diabetes, anxiety and asthma -- fail in late-stage clinical trials last year.

Maybe it's because some analysts are starting to sound alarms about growth rates of some important drugs.

Whatever the reasons, Wall Street's score card of Merck looks like this: On one side, three analysts say "buy"; on the other side, four analysts say "sell." In the bulging middle, 22 Merck-watchers say "hold."

So while analysts await the company's release of its financial results Thursday, it's hardly surprising that they are adhering closely to Merck's first-quarter earnings-per-share guidance of 71 cents to 73 cents. The consensus of analysts polled by Thomson First Call is 72 cents. The consensus for the year is $3.13. The company's full-year guidance is $3.11 to $3.17.

Merck managed to meet Wall Street's consensus expectations for the fourth quarter of 2003 with an EPS of 62 cents, but it missed consensus predictions in the two previous quarters.

For the three months ended March 31, Wall Street is looking for earnings of $1.61 billion, or 72 cents, on revenue of $5.74 billion.

For the same period last year, the company earned $1.71 billion, or 76 cents a share, on revenue of $13.4 billion. However, those figures include the pharmacy benefit management company, Medco, which was spun off as an independent company in August.

The first-quarter report should give analysts a more detailed look at how well cost-cutting and cost-controlling efforts are working. Last October, Merck said it would dismiss 4,400 workers through 2004. It also launched a new program for U.S. wholesalers that is designed to reduce fluctuations in inventories and improve efficiency in selling products.

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