Publicly traded companies are required to report their financial performance to regulators and shareholders on a quarterly basis. Earnings season is the often-turbulent period when most companies disclose their successes and failures.
U.S. companies included in the S&P 500 index suffered year-over-year earnings declines in the first two quarters of 2019.1 Rising wages and higher material costs (partially due to tariffs imposed on traded goods) had started to cut into profit margins.2
Earnings reports are closely watched because they reveal a corporation's bottom line. However, they generally reflect past performance and may have little to do with future results.
A quarterly report includes unaudited financial statements, a discussion of the business conditions that affected financial results, and some guidance about how the company expects to perform in the following quarters. Financial statements reveal the quarter's profit or net income, which must be calculated according to generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). This involves subtracting operating expenses (including depreciation, taxes, and other expenses) from net income.
Earnings per share (EPS) represents the portion of total profit that applies to each outstanding share of company stock. EPS is often the figure that makes headlines, because the financial media tend to focus on whether companies meet, beat, or fall short of the consensus estimate of Wall Street analysts. A company can beat the market by losing less money than expected, or can log billions in profits and still disappoint investors who were counting on more.
An earnings surprise — whether EPS comes in above or below expectations — can have an immediate effect on a company's stock price.
In addition to filing regulatory paperwork, many companies announce their results through press releases, conference calls, and/or webinars so they can influence how the information is judged by analysts, financial media, and investors.
Pro-forma (or adjusted) earnings may exclude nonrecurring expenses such as restructuring costs, interest payments, taxes, and other unique events. Although the Securities and Exchange Commission has rules governing pro-forma financial statements, companies have leeway to highlight the positive and minimize the negative. There may be a vast difference between pro-forma earnings and those calculated according to GAAP.
Many companies also take steps to manage expectations. Issuing profit warnings or positive revisions to previous forecasts may prompt analysts to adjust their estimates accordingly. Companies may also be able to time certain business moves to help meet quarterly earnings targets.
The media hype surrounding an earnings surprise can sometimes draw attention away from important details that may be revealed in a company's quarterly report. Factors such as sales growth, research and development, new products, consumer trends, government policies, and global economic conditions can all affect a company's longer-term prospects.
The return and principal value of stocks fluctuate with changes in market conditions. Shares, when sold, may be worth more or less than their original cost. The S&P 500 is an unmanaged group of securities that is considered to be representative of the U.S. stock market in general. The performance of an unmanaged index is not indicative of the performance of any specific investment. Individuals cannot invest directly in an index.
1FactSet, August 9, 2019
2Reuters, April 9, 2019