David Gaffen

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Full of Sound and Fury: Earnings Arrives

July 8, 2009

On some level, every quarter is a make-or-break earnings season, and maybe that’s particularly true for the midsummer earnings season, as it comes at an otherwise quiet time for the broader markets.

But as investors get ready for Alcoa’s ‘kick-off’ of earnings season (and really, Alcoa serves as a nice beginning more for its symbol’s position in the alphabet than as any barometer for earnings), there may be something to all of the fretting this time around. After all, investors endured an awful fourth quarter, where the entire S&P collectively managed to lose money on an operating basis (thanks, AIG, and Citigroup, and GM, and, um…), and a first quarter mostly notable for a slightly better performance than expected – even though earnings were down 36% from the previous year.

It’s still hard to see where the improvement is going to be, however. Earnings are expected to fall about 36% once again, and investors in recent weeks have finally cottoned to the idea that vaulting over low bars really isn’t much to get optimistic about. If the market is truly going to turn higher, it will depend on the quality of earnings, and there, some aren’t so optimistic. Mike Lewitt, president of Harch Capital Management, said, “I don’t think there’s a lot of revenue growth, just shrinkage – basically everybody is shrinking across the board and that’s what we’re seeing.”

The hope, somehow, is that consumer demand is starting to rebound, however slightly, as people get used to the new economic reality – relieved to still have a job, and ready to buy goods after putting off purchases for some time. “Many people made decisions to postpone purchases but not forego them,” said Diane Garnick, investment strategist at Invesco.

We’ll see. What may be necessary is a bit of reading between the lines when listening to conference calls. Visibility is still limited, and executives aren’t going to be eager to put forth rosy expectations when the economy remains stretched. An outbreak of brutal honesty among top execs isn’t likely, but a bit of hesitancy in describing current business decisions would say a lot.

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  • About David

    "David Gaffen oversees the U.S. markets team, having joined Reuters in May 2009. He spent four years at the Wall Street Journal, where he was the original writer of the web site's MarketBeat blog. He is a frequent guest on Reuters TV, and has appeared on CNN International, Fox Business, NPR, and assorted other media and is the author of the book "Never Buy Another Stock Again.""
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