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4 Key Trends to Watch This Earnings Season
Companies are doing everything in their power to make investors focus on the long-term. Monthly sales reports have been replaced by quarterly sales updates by many retailers, and quarterly forward guidance is increasingly being replaced by once-a-year outlooks that get incrementally adjusted throughout the year. That's why this coming earnings season is so important.
Earnings season begins this week and will hit a peak in early February. By the middle of February, we'll have a clear read on what kind of year many companies are expecting.
Right now, the outlook is expected to be "fair to middling." Whereas profits for companies in the S&P 500 are expected to have grown at a 30% clip compared with a year ago, that pace is expected to cool perhaps to 10% to 20% in 2011. Right now, analysts' are targeting first-quarter profit growth of around 15%.
Here's what I'll be watching for and listening for in the slate of upcoming conference calls:
1. Listen closely to Alcoa's (NYSE: AA) conference call. This Dow component will deliver a quarterly update after the close of trading on Monday. Management is extremely helpful in providing a very granular level of detail about demand for aluminium around the world, along with pricing trends. What Alcoa says usually is parroted by many other aluminum and steel producers, and it's also a key harbinger for other commodity and industrial plays that have a global footprint.
Right now, most analysts expect 2011 to be characterized by rising demand and firming pricing for many commodities, although China remains the wildcard, as that country has stockpiled many items in anticipation of future demand. If the Chinese economy slows, the country would turn to its stockpiles, curtailing a key source of global demand. I don't expect that, but if you hear more about a China slowdown, you should quickly lighten your exposure.
I think Alcoa is extremely well-positioned to surpass forecasts in 2011. I laid out a bull case for Alcoa in September, and even though shares have risen 50% since then, I think similar upside exists for 2011 as well. What I wrote then still stands: "Alcoa has taken so many costs out of the business, that EPS should be nicely higher on 'normal revenue,' perhaps in the $2.25 to $2.50 range. When the global economy — and Alcoa — is back on its feet, shares could easily trade up to 10 times profits, or $22 to $25." (Alcoa's recent price is around $16.)
2. Hiring plans. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that the upcoming earnings season will be characterized by major hiring pronouncements. Companies have been waiting for quite some time before deciding to add to staff. An improving economy means it's time to play offense and seek new paths to grow. That takes manpower. Right now, many companies are relying on temporary employees to meet their needs, but permanent hires should be the new theme in 2011.
If we are indeed on the cusp of a rebound in hiring, the economy would benefit in myriad ways: Retail spending would finally start to move up, home buyers would likely be more emboldened, and state and local governments would start to see a material rebound in revenue. The converse also holds. If an upturn in hiring plans fails to materialize, the economy runs the risk of another year of subpar growth, which would make it harder to justify any more upside in the market after the heady gains of the last four months.
3. Deal-making should step up. When companies announce a new acquisition, they often wait until the quarterly conference call. (Targets like to know that they are stepping into a healthy situation and need access to key sales trends. But once companies disseminate that info to a select crowd, they feel compelled to publicly release that data, hence the need to wrap up both disclosures simultaneously.)
In all likelihood, the economy in 2011 won't be sufficiently robust to fuel solid organic growth. And since executives get lots of stock options tied to a rising stock price, they seek out growth wherever they can find it. That's why many expect to see a very strong year for M&A in 2011. Much of that activity may kick off in the weeks ahead.
Watch for buybacks. Companies have been buying stock back at a furious pace in recent months. Shares of companies that announced buyback plans have seen their stock perform well in subsequent weeks. I profiled the biggest stock buybacks of November, and 11 of them have seen their stock move up since then (some by a considerable margin), while one has traded flat and one is down slightly. Other companies contemplating buybacks have surely taken note of that trend. If you see a company announce a fresh buyback plan, you should give that stock an immediate look. A price floor has likely been created for the stock, and upside may be in the offing.
Action to Take –> All signs point to a solid earnings season. The tone of many conference calls is likely to be fairly bullish, despite the so-so economy. That could help extend the market's gains.
Yet stocks have moved so far in the last two years, that if this earnings season kicks off a heated rally, you really need to think about booking profits where possible. Harvesting winners raises cash for the inevitable pullback. And there are still so many landmines out there that some sort- of market-jarring event also seems inevitable in 2011.
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