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The warning signs in earnings season

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Alcoa kicked off the quarterly earnings season on Wednesday, as it always does, and the news could be fairly described as “muddled.” The aluminum giant did beat the analysts’ estimate of $5.54 billion in sales by reporting third-quarter sales of $5.83 billion — but that was down from 6.43 billion in the third quarter of 2011. All told, the stock lost 13 cents a share. That’s not a very impressive “beat.”

Alcoa’s uninspiring report could be the start of a quarter that has all the makings of, if not a bloodbath, then a serious downer for many investors. As recently as June 30, earnings for the third quarter were projected to increase by 1.9 percent, according to data compiled by FactSet. But as of the beginning of October, after guidance numbers had been issued by many companies, the collective estimated earnings are now projected at a negative 2.7 percent.

If that loss does hold true, it will break a string of eleven consecutive quarters in which earnings have grown. That’s a frightening turnaround, and a broad-based one as well. Nine out of ten S&P 500 sectors have had their collective earnings projections downgraded. The only one that has kept its head above water is the financial sector.

One hundred and three corporations issued guidance numbers prior to this earnings season; 80 of those have been below the average analyst’s estimate for their earnings. That leaves just 23 companies that have exceeded the analysts’ estimates, which would be the smallest number on record since FactSet began recording this data back in 2006. The 78 percent of all reporting companies lowering estimates is a record, beating out the previous high of 73 percent, set in the fourth quarter of 2011.

So that’s the bad news. There are other sides to this story, though, reasons to believe that even if earnings fall as much as some experts expect, it may not be the worst thing for the stocks in question. Among the mitigating circumstances:

Playing the expectations game. Companies want to downplay their earnings before their official announcements. When it comes to earnings season, the name of the game is beating expectations: In the previous quarter, 70 percent of the companies in the S&P 500 beat their earnings estimates, even though only 42 percent beat their sales estimates.

It’s considered highly embarrassing to fall short of expectations: Historically, companies that have missed their earnings drop about twice as much as companies that exceed expectations gain. So nearly everyone positions themselves to beat their estimates. That’s probably a big reason for the downgrade in guidance numbers that FactSet found.

Sales growth still looks solid. Despite the low overall revenue growth rate for the index, eight of the ten sectors are expected to see sales growth for the quarter. According to FactSet’s data, sales growth is projected at 9.5 percent for the quarter. Financials, at 2.84 percent, and materials, at 24.4 percent, are expected to show robust growth; the only two sectors that projected to report a decline in sales are energy and Materials.

Beating earnings isn’t so great in the long run, anyway. Sample portfolios show that even positive earnings surprises don’t make for the best stocks. A reporter from Forbes recently conducted a fascinating study about stocks that outperform in their earnings reports. He constructed a portfolio of the ten biggest earnings surprises for each quarter, and compared them against the S&P 500. Over a three-year period, $1,000 invested in the S&P would have returned, on average, $1,398. A portfolio constructed from the top 10 earnings surprises, as measured by percent difference between the consensus estimate and the reported number, ended up at only $1,361. In other words, over the longer-term earnings surprises don’t provide any boost over the rest of the market.

Even Alcoa’s weak beat might be good news. Over the past ten years, Alcoa has reported earnings above the mean EPS estimate roughly half the time, or 19 out of 40 quarters. When it’s beat the estimates, the S&P 500 has increased in 15 of these 19 quarters; in the 21 quarters that Alcoa has missed on earnings, the S&P decreased in 11 of these 21 quarters, or a little more than half of the time. So even a weak outperformance from Alcoa might still mean good news for stocks ahead.

For more from Tom Nawrocki, see:

The tales of 9 stocks that doubled

The virtues of a boring market

Will small caps survive over the long haul?


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