With hundreds of companies having already reported quarterly results, we're now in the heart of earnings season. The key to making smart investment decisions with stocks releasing their quarter reports is to anticipate how they'll do before they announce results, leaving you fully prepared to respond quickly to whatever inevitable surprises arise. That way, you'll be less likely to make an uninformed knee-jerk reaction to news that turns out to be exactly the wrong move.

Let's turn to Manitowoc (NYSE:MTW). The crane builder and food-services equipment maker has been on the move ever since last spring, as prospects for an improving global economy started to take hold and boost its business prospects. Let's take an early look at what's been happening with Manitowoc over the past quarter and what we're likely to see in its quarterly report on Thursday.

Stats on Manitowoc

Analyst EPS Estimate

$0.24

Change from Year-Ago EPS

72.0%

Revenue Estimate

$1.09 billion

Change from Year-Ago Revenue

5.2%

Earnings Beats in Past 4 Quarters

1

Source: Yahoo Finance.

Can Manitowoc keep building?
Manitowoc hasn't done the best job of guiding analysts toward the right EPS guesses, but that hasn't stopped analysts from raising their views on the company's fourth-quarter earnings. With boosts of $0.03 per share on earnings estimates in the past three months, analyst views haven't really kept up with investor enthusiasm over the stock, which has helped share prices rise by nearly 30% since late October.

Manitowoc has made huge progress since the financial crisis in turning its business around, and absent a surprising miss, the company should post its first yearly profit in four years for 2012. Moreover, improving economic prospects have started to show up in competitors' results. Earlier this week, Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT) managed to beat analysts' expectations with its fourth-quarter earnings, excluding a big writedown from a recent acquisition. Still, revenue was weak, and Caterpillar doesn't expect big gains on the macroeconomic front in 2013. That's consistent with the views we've gotten from ag-equipment maker Deere (NYSE:DE), which has pulled back on revenue estimates even as investors bid the shares up substantially.

In the food-services business, it will be interesting to see the effect of McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) recent sales weakness on Manitowoc. Until international expansion in the restaurant industry ramps back up, it'll be tough for the segment to make much headway.

Similarly, international prospects will be important in Manitowoc's core crane business. As the company seeks to cash in on Brazil's major infrastructure projects in the next three years, Manitowoc could become much more reliant on overseas revenue than it is currently.

To judge Manitowoc's progress, be sure to keep your eye on what it's doing to grow the scope of its business. Merely benefiting from improving economies won't be enough to justify the big rise in Manitowoc's stock alone; the company also needs to prove it can evolve to become more of a leader in the construction equipment industry.

Click here to add Manitowoc to My Watchlist, which can find all of our Foolish analysis on it and all your other stocks.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger. The Motley Fool recommends McDonald's. The Motley Fool owns shares of McDonald's. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.