Nortel

(NT)

executives have recently been out in the field talking to customers, and according to at least one Wall Street analyst, what they've found doesn't make for a glowing story.

Nortel wouldn't comment on the speculation or the travels of its executives, but one analyst says Nortel brass, including CEO John Roth, have been racking up flying time and wearing down shoe leather visiting some 60 customers to gauge this year's sales. The analyst asked to remain anonymous.

The results: A majority of customers haven't gotten their boards of directors to sign off on capital expenditure budgets recommended by management. These budgets -- for such things as network expansions and upgrades, read: new equipment -- were compiled at the end of last year but have remained unapproved for nearly two months, according to the unnamed analyst.

Notably, this would explain why Nortel,

Cisco

(CSCO) - Get Report

,

Corning

(GLW) - Get Report

,

JDS Uniphase

(JDSU)

and nearly the entire sector of networking equipment makers have had little or no

"visibility" on sales growth.

In fact, lacking any credible evidence to form reliable outlooks, it would be of little surprise that Nortel executives and top officials from other suppliers were out on fact-finding missions. "If

Roth didn't go visit his customers in this environment, something is wrong," says a Boston based hedge fund manager who has no position in Nortel.

Many Nortel watchers have

predicted that the company will either take down its sales and profit targets for the quarter in a preannouncement or report an earnings shortfall next month during its quarterly report. Nortel earned the distrust of the Street last fall by

talking up its business and then missing its numbers. The disappointment was the first of many shortfalls among the gear makers.

Evidence of Nortel's ongoing deterioration has been mounting recently. The company

lost out to rivals for part of a $900 million contract with

British Telecom

(BT)

and another deal with

360Networks

(TSIX)

in the past two weeks, as a pricing war intensifies across the sector. Adding to that pressure, big customers such as

Qwest

(Q)

have made it clear that they are finding

premium used gear for cheap.

Nortel has forecast 14% sales growth this year, but several analysts feel that doesn't reflect the poor health of the market. Earlier this month,

UBS PaineWebber

analyst Nikos Theodosopoulos

cut his revenue-growth estimate to 4%.

Nortel shares have already fallen to $16, which is 81% below their 52-week high of $89. And some investors say the stock is still overpriced.

"Right now, Nortel trades at 1.5 times this year's revenues, and 1.3 times next year's revenues. Those numbers have got to come down," says a New York-based hedge fund manager who has no position in Nortel. "They can't grow by 12% this year and then another 22% in 2002. I just don't see it happening."

Given the uncertainty of Nortel's sales outlook, the New York hedge fund manager says he thinks the shares are a safer value at one times next year's revenues, which is roughly $13 per share.

So if Nortel is starting to get some visibility, it needs to compare its view with the Street's and figure out which is uglier.