3 Lessons From This Earnings Season

Rebounding from yesterday's loss, stocks opened higher this morning, with the S&P 500 (SNPINDEX: ^GSPC  ) and the narrower, price-weighted Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) up about 0.8% each as of 10:10 a.m. EST.

Halftime report
On Friday, data provider Factset published one its periodic Earnings Insight reports. With nearly half of the companies in the S&P 500 having reported earnings, it's worth digging into the numbers for some insights. Here are three:

  • The estimates game: Companies are still having no trouble beating estimates on both earnings and revenue. Of companies that have reported, 70% have beaten the mean earnings-per-share estimate, which is in line with the proportion of recent quarters; the fourth-quarter blended earnings growth rate is currently 4%. Similarly, two-thirds have beaten their revenue estimates, which is higher than the proportion of recent quarters. However, it's important to point out that estimates came down throughout the quarter, which saw the bottom-up estimate for S&P 500 earnings fall 6%.
  • Go lower: A similar recalibration is taking place with regard to first-half earnings estimates, as more than four-fifths of the 61 companies that have offered guidance for the first quarter provided forecasts that were below the prevailing mean estimate. As a result, analysts have lowered growth estimates for the first and second quarters.
  • Europe weak, China strong: Some businesses, including Dow components Alcoa (NYSE: AA  ) and Johnson & Johnson, experienced weakness in Europe in the fourth quarter and/or expect weakness in that region in 2013. Conversely, Alcoa was among the companies that said they had benefited from strength in emerging economies and/or were expecting strong demand in these markets (particularly China) in 2013.

Among all sectors, materials companies are reporting the largest upside surprises in their fourth-quarter earnings estimates. Materials industries are traditionally known for their high barriers to entry, and the aluminum industry is no exception. Representing 14.7% of 2011 global production in this highly consolidated industry, Alcoa is in prime position to take advantage of growth that some expect will lead to total industry revenue approaching $160 billion by 2017. Based on this prospect and several other company-specific factors, Alcoa is certainly worth a closer look. For a Foolish investment perspective on this global giant, simply click here to get started.


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