Monday, Airgas Inc. (ARG), a distributor of industrial, medical, and specialty gases, lowered its fourth-quarter and fiscal 2009 earnings forecast, both below market projections. Citing the broad-based pressure on sales volumes, Airgas further announced additional cost control measures, including a salary and wage freeze.

Fourth-quarter earnings are currently estimated in the range of $0.64 to $0.67 per share, compared to its previous forecast of $0.73 to $0.76 per share.

On average, 12 analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expect the company to post earnings of $0.74 per share, with estimates ranging between $0.72 and $0.76 per share. Analysts' estimates typically exclude special items.

Further, Airgas now expects a fourth-quarter total same-store sales decline in the low teens with hardgoods declining more significantly than gas and rent, in comparison to previous projection of low to mid single-digit percentage decline in same-store sales. The revised forecast assumes that current sales trends persist, while the original guidance had assumed a modest decline from third-quarter sales levels.

The company noted that volumes remain low in most customer segments with manufacturing suffering the sharpest declines and medical showing the most resilience.

The fourth-quarter earnings teleconference will be on May 6, during which it will provide a full review of the results, Airgas noted.

In its preceding third quarter, the company's net earnings increased to $62.9 million or $0.76 per share from $56.8 million or $0.67 per share in the prior year period. Quarterly sales increased 7% from the prior year to $1.1 billion, and total same-store sales advanced 1%.

Among peers, diversified chemicals company Air Products & Chemicals Inc. (APD) is slated to release its second-quarter results on April 22. The company expects earnings from continuing operations to be in the range of $0.80 to $0.90 per share for the quarter, while analysts project earnings of $0.83 per share, lower than prior year's recorded earnings of $1.23 per share.

Industrial gas producer Praxair, Inc. (PX) currently expects earnings in a range of $0.90 to $0.95 per share for the March ending first quarter, while analysts expect the company to report earnings of $0.92 per share.

Further ahead, for the fiscal 2009, Airgas now expects earnings per share in the range of $3.07 to $3.10, compared to its earlier expectation in the range of $3.16 to $3.19 per share. In the previous year, the company's earnings were $2.68 per share. Street analysts expect earnings of $3.17 per share for the year, with estimates in between $3.15 and $3.19 per share.

The company reiterated that prevailing economic conditions offer limited visibility into future sales and earnings, which should be taken into consideration when evaluating the company's guidance.

In addition, Airgas announced the implementation of additional cost control measures, citing the broad-based pressure on sales volumes in the fourth quarter. The company has instituted a salary and wage freeze to mitigate future cost pressures, and also taken steps to realize $10 million in annual expense savings, in addition to the previously announced actions, which are expected to generate $35 million in annual expense savings and $10 million in annual operating efficiency savings.

Among peers, Air Products & Chemicals expects fiscal 2009 GAAP earnings in the range of $3.45 - $3.75 per share, and non-GAAP earnings between $4.00 and $4.30 per share. Wall Street analysts have a consensus earnings estimate of $4.03 per share for the full year.

Meanwhile, Praxair anticipates fiscal 2009 earnings in a range of $3.80 to $4.20 per share on sales between $9.5 billion and $10 billion. Analysts expect the company to report earnings of $3.98 per share on revenues of $9.97 billion for fiscal 2009.

ARG is currently trading on the New York Stock Exchange at $32.80, up $0.24 or 0.71%, on a volume of more than one million shares. In the past 52 weeks, shares have been trading in a broad range of $26.29 - $65.45.

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