By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - "Forget about where you've been. Tell us where you're going."
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While early earnings reports from big companies including Alcoa Inc
Chief executives are likely to push back on questions about their 2012 outlooks -- big companies including General Electric Co
The memory of the sharp downturn following the late 2008 credit crunch is still fresh in their minds.
"Are managements going to retrench as quickly and as deeply in the event of a credit moment in Europe or China as they did last time around?" said Peter Klein, senior portfolio manager at Fifth Third Asset Management in Cleveland, Ohio. "What we want to hear is a dose of reality. What are you planning, what's your contingency, what are you actually seeing?"
This comes as CEOs of many big U.S. companies say orders are holding up, and one of the main risks they see is that customers will start holding off on orders out of fear that something might happen to hurt the economy.
"There is just not enough certainty and in some ways the most important thing we can do right now is social and it has to do with rebuilding confidence," GE CEO Jeff Immelt told a group of executives from mid-sized U.S. companies in Columbus, Ohio last week.
Immelt is due to speak at a Thomson Reuters Newsmaker event in New York on Monday.
GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS
Heading into the reporting season, not every company has offered a positive view of how the third quarter went.
Ingersoll Rand Plc
But Honeywell confirmed its outlook, saying it expected to come in at the high end of its forecast on strong demand for turbochargers and automation and control equipment.
Several factors are working in big manufacturers' favor: One is that the price of a wide range of metals have fallen, easing pressure on profit margins. The price of copper, particularly important as it used for all sorts of wiring, fell by 25 percent in the third quarter.
Another is that many big industrials, including GE, United Technologies and ITT Corp
But the risks are also clear. With growth at home sagging, U.S. multinationals have been counting on foreign demand to drive results. Europe's economies are being rocked by a sovereign-debt crisis and China is showing signs of slowing.
Analysts, on average, have forecast slower growth for big manufacturers in the third quarter versus the first half of the year, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
"We don't believe there's going to be a double dip. We do believe we're in a slow recovery, but this market is behaving like it's got bipolar disorder," said Scott Schermerhorn, portfolio manager with Granite Investment Advisors Inc in Concord, New Hampshire, which manages about $500 million in investments and is currently underweight in the industrial sector.
(Additional reporting by Nick Zieminski in New York; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)