Updated from 11:45 a.m. ET

Analysts expect big things when business-to-business companies report results over the next couple of weeks, though you couldn't tell that from the sagging stocks.

Could be a tempting reason to buy, right? After all,

Ariba

(ARBA)

is down about 30% this year, so it should at least make for a good trade when its numbers come out Jan. 11.

Then again, maybe it won't.

Jon Ekoniak, an analyst at

U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffrey

, questions whether now is a good time to buy B2B stocks. They could bleed more if their numbers lack pizzazz.

Ariba, at about 10 times next year's sales, "is still trading at the higher end of historical ranges for these kinds of companies," Ekoniak says. (He rates Ariba a buy, and his firm hasn't done underwriting for it.)

In other words, Ariba and other B2Bs would have to completely smoke their numbers to get any significant pop from their quarterly reports. Ekoniak doesn't see that happening.

"That upside we saw last year, we are going to see less of it," he says. "The

consensus numbers we're seeing are closer to what the real numbers will be."

The Numbers

Analysts estimate Ariba will earn 2 cents a share on revenue of $156 million, according to

Multex.com

, while archrival

Commerce One

(CMRC)

is expected to post a loss of 7 cents a share on revenue of $176 million.

But beyond fourth-quarter results, analysts will be watching management for clues about what lies ahead in 2001.

"I think people generally expect the B2Bs in my universe to beat the revenue and earnings estimates, and yet that really doesn't matter," says Patrick Walravens, an analyst at

Lehman Brothers

. "If you blow away this quarter, but don't make significant

upside change for your guidance in 2001, so what?"

That so-what attitude could be seen Tuesday in shares of

i2 Technologies

(ITWO)

. The company

said Monday after the close of regular trading that it would exceed revenue and earnings expectations when it reports quarterly results Jan. 17. But after getting an initial pop on the news, its shares were barely up Tuesday afternoon, rising 31 cents to $42.25.

Like

Brad Johnson's arm, observers just aren't convinced that these companies have that much firepower left. "What we're seeing is a ratcheting back of those upside expectations," Ekoniak says. "Management may temper guidance somewhat."

So far, those who have bet on a bottom in B2B stocks have been burned. In a research note issued Jan. 4,

Prudential Securities

analyst Doug Crook said, "B2B e-commerce stocks are near or at their bottom." Not near enough, apparently, considering the 12% drop the next day in the

Merrill Lynch B2B Internet HOLDRS

(BHH)

, a basket of B2B stocks.

History

But before you discount Crook's analysis as typical Wall Street blather or just plain wrong, consider where the call is coming from. Crook was one of the first analysts to throw water on the B2B fire last spring, when he issued a

note questioning whether B2Bs could charge transaction fees to companies using their software. B2B stock prices took a huge hit that day and haven't really been the same since.

So Crook's not afraid to point out the risks in these stocks, which makes his recent call a little more credible -- if not completely accurate at this point. He didn't return a call asking him to comment.

Among other companies, analysts see

PurchasePro.com

(PPRO)

showing promise for the fourth quarter, though it will have to tell a clean story about its numbers, especially where its recurring revenue is concerned. Since it's last quarterly report,

doubters have increasingly targeted PurchasePro over issues about its numbers. Analysts expect PurchasePro to show a loss of a penny a share on $24 million in revenue, according to

First Call/Thomson Financial.

VerticalNet

(VERT)

, which

announced last month its plan to sell its

NECX

unit, will have to give a clear vision of its business ahead to stoke investors' interest, analysts say. The company also has been

rocked by the departure of Joe Galli as CEO. It's expected to report a loss of 18 cents a share on $81 million in revenue.

But in this market, caution is still pervasive. "Much the way a rising tide lifts all ships, the opposite is true as well," says Ekoniak.