At the beginning of this month, securities firm Merrill Lynch & Co., New York, lowered its 2001 operating earnings-per-share (EPS) forecast for the S&P 500 to 8%. Now, near the end of December, Merrill Lynch is lowering it again -- to 5%. Indeed, Chief Economist Bruce Steinberg expects four sectors to have negative earnings growth. "We expect operating EPS to decline about 5% for both consumer cyclicals and basic industry. And we expect operating EPS to decline about 3% for telecom services and capital goods -- excluding GE [General Electric Co.], half the market cap of the sector," he states. But Steinberg is not all negative and low growth. For example, he predicts 2001 operating EPS to be up 14% in both health-care and energy. And although tech stocks as a group won't be posting the 30% operating EPS growth of the Last two years, Steinberg still expects to see a double-digit advance of 10% in 2001.