By John S. McClenahen The influential securities firm whose corporate symbol is a bull is turning a bit bearish. Merrill Lynch & Co., New York has lowered its 2001 GDP forecast for the U.S. economy to 3.3% from 3.7% and, as a result, expects operating earnings-per-share for the S&P 500 to grow 8% next year, down from the 10% it had previously predicted. Main reason for the GDP revision: "Capital spending -- and in particular telecom equipment spending -- looks to be softer than we'd been assuming," says Bruce Steinberg, Merrill Lynch's chief economist. "And while the risk of a hard landing is low, there is a rising risk of a rough landing, which we define as growth below 3%," he adds. Steinberg is now looking for technology company earnings to advance 15% in 2001, seven percentage points lower than his previously estimated 22%. "That puts tech roughly in line with the expected earnings growth of the energy and health-care sectors, albeit with a lot less earnings visibility," says Steinberg.