Shares of world's largest restaurant company McDonald's Corp. on Tuesday fell as much as 6 percent, a day after the company warned that its outlook for 2002 is below analysts' expectations, reflecting continued weakness in sales and operations.

Stock in the maker of Big Macs and Quarter Pounders was down $1.29 or 4.73 percent, to close at $25.99, on the New York Stock Exchange, after earlier dropping as low as $25.45. The stock has fallen about 23 percent this year, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average, of which it is a component, is down about 15 percent. 

The share decline came during the second day of a two-day presentation at McDonald's Oak Brook, Illinois, headquarters. With promises of improved U.S. operations and slowed international growth, executives worked to win the trust of Wall Street analysts who have watched the company post four consecutive quarterly earnings declines. During the meeting, Chief Executive Jack Greenberg called 2001 "the most challenging year" in McDonald's history. 

In the past year, McDonald's has been hurt by weak foreign currencies, troubled economies in Latin America and Asia, and flagging sales, especially in Europe, where demand for burgers has been hampered by consumer beef safety concerns amid an outbreak of mad cow disease. 

If currency levels remain steady, McDonald's said it expects 2002 per-share earnings to grow 5 percent to 10 percent before a charge in this year's fourth quarter, below Wall Street's consensus expectation of a 12-percent year-over-year gain. Before Monday's guidance, analysts had expected 2002 earnings of $1.54 a share on average. 

Several investment firms lowered their outlook in the wake of the earnings guidance, including Salomon Smith Barney, which brought its 2002 expectations down 4 cents to $1.50 a share. 

"Management called 2002 'a year of stabilization,' saying that it needed to stabilize the business before growing further," wrote Salomon analyst Mark Kalinowski in a research report. "Operating margins may be essentially flat year-over-year, with some geographic regions' figures — e.g. Europe — balanced out by more challenging numbers in other regions — e.g. Asia/Pacific." 

McDonald's outlook was further dampened by debt rating companies Standard & Poors and Fitch, which dropped their ratings on the company, citing its announcement Monday to repurchase $5 billion worth of stock. 

During the presentation, McDonald's officials said the company would slow world-wide growth next year, opening roughly 200 fewer McDonald's restaurants than in 2001, as it cuts back in troubled markets such as Brazil and Japan. The company operates more than 29,000 hamburger outlets worldwide. 

Still, McDonald's remains hopeful that its non-hamburger concepts, including Boston Market, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Donatos pizza chains, as well as some new test concepts, are showing promise. 

For example, a test of a diner concept in Kokomo, Indiana, has seen steady sales growth, and the company has plans to open or convert 12 new diners elsewhere in Indiana beginning next year, executives said. The company is also planning to expand a new smaller-store concept called McSnack, which was introduced last month inside a Houston Wal-Mart. 

In addition, McDonald's said that later this year its once-troubled Boston Market chain will open its first new stores in four years and is set to begin expansion beyond the United States into Australia and Canada. McDonald's operates about 1,060 non-hamburger stores.