UPDATE 4-Amerisource profit beats, investors unload shares

* Q3 EPS ex items $0.52 vs Street view $0.49

* Sees fourth-quarter EPS range below third quarter

* Sees FY EPS $2.16-$2.20; previous view $2.01-$2.10

* Sees FY 2011 up 7-11 pct

* Shares fall as much as 8.8 pct (Adds FY 2011 forecast, analyst comment, updates share price)

By Lewis Krauskopf

NEW YORK, July 27 (Reuters) - AmerisourceBergen Corp ABC.N posted higher-than-expected quarterly profit growth on Tuesday, but shares fell as much as 8.8 percent after the drug wholesaler said fourth-quarter earnings would be lower than in the third.

The drug wholesaler reported a profit of 52 cents a share for its fiscal third quarter, excluding items. It forecast a fourth-quarter profit of 44 to 48 cents a share.

Investors unloaded shares of Amerisource, which have outperformed rivals and the market this year.

“The weakness in the stock is related to (the sequential profit decline) more so than anything,” Jefferies & Co analyst Richard Close said.

Amerisource, one of the three biggest U.S. pharmaceutical wholesalers, has consistently surpassed quarterly estimates this fiscal year. Even with the disappointing fourth-quarter forecast, it projects its annual earnings per share will rise as much as 30 percent.

The company also gave a preliminary profit forecast for growth in the next fiscal year of 7 to 11 percent. Wall Street had been projecting an increase within that range.

“Amerisource has had a stellar year from an operational standpoint, and it’s also had a very good year from a stock performance standpoint,” Close said.

Third-quarter net income rose to $163.2 million, or 57 cents per share, from $118.8 million, or 40 cents per share, a year earlier.

Excluding special items, earnings of 52 cents per share were 3 cents ahead of the analysts’ average estimate, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Revenue rose 6.6 percent to $19.6 billion. Analysts expected $19.34 billion.

“ABC’s beat reflects all-around performance, with revenues, gross margins and operating leverage exceeding expectations,” Sanford Bernstein analyst Helene Wolk said in a research note.

Amerisource cited strong sales of generic medicines, which large wholesalers can buy in large quantities at low prices, including the sale of a generic version of Sanofi-Aventis' SASY.PA Eloxatin cancer drug.

The report comes after shares of Amerisource and other wholesalers fell last week when pharmacy benefit manager Medco Health Solutions Inc MHS.N said 2011 would be a weaker year for generic drug contributions.

Amerisource’s operating expenses fell to 1.56 percent of revenue from 1.66 percent a year earlier.

The company projected fiscal-year earnings of $2.16 to $2.20 a share, up from a prior forecast of $2.01 to $2.10. It said it expected revenue growth of between 8 and 9 percent.

For its 2011 fiscal year, Amerisource’s preliminary profit growth projection translates to a range of roughly $2.28 to $2.36 per share. Analysts have been looking for $2.30.

Amerisource shares were down $1.35 or 4.4 percent at $29.15 on the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday afternoon, off an earlier low at $27.83. The stock is still up about 11 percent this year against increases of about 3 percent for each of its main rivals, McKesson Corp MCK.N and Cardinal Health Inc CAH.N. (Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Robert MacMillan and Matthew Lewis)