Earnings season is in full swing, with huge numbers of companies having already given their latest numbers to investors, and Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE:ANR) is about to release its quarterly earnings report. 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.

Alpha Natural Resources has had to deal with some terrible conditions in the coal market lately, but many hope that the worst may be over for the industry. Let's take an early look at what's been happening with Alpha Natural Resources over the past quarter and what we're likely to see in its quarterly report on Thursday.

Stats on Alpha Natural Resources

 

 

Analyst EPS Estimate

($0.55)

Year-Ago EPS

($0.07)

Revenue Estimate

$1.55 billion

Change From Year-Ago Revenue

(25%)

Earnings Beats in Past 4 Quarters

1

Source: Yahoo! Finance.

Is Alpha Natural Resources going to heat up this quarter?
Analysts have gotten steadily less optimistic about Alpha Natural's prospects over the past few months, cutting about $0.04 off their consensus for fourth-quarter results and significantly more from their full-year 2013 estimates. The stock is up just 1% since early November, although that period has seen a lot of volatility as investors have hoped for an industry rebound.

Alpha Natural has struggled through the same industry headwinds as other major coal producers. When natural gas prices fell to multiyear lows, utilities started switching from coal-fired generation plants to gas-fired production, resulting in plunging coal demand and lower prices. With extensive reserves close to major U.S. utilities, Alpha Natural and James River Coal (NASDAQOTH:JRCCQ) were among those hardest hit by the drop in demand.

But peers have reported some positive signs in the industry. Peabody Energy (NYSE:BTU) has seen greater demand from India and China, which has helped the company, given its exposure to assets in the western U.S. and Australia that are fairly convenient to export to Asia. Similarly, Arch Coal (NYSE:ACI) cited similar trends of rising exports in its quarterly report. Given that Alpha Natural has huge export capacity compared to its competitors, the company could see massive gains in volume.

In Alpha Natural's earnings report, look for further signs of good news on the export front from China and other big coal users. Without export help, it's going to be hard for Alpha Natural to recover from its dramatic declines over the past year.

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned, and neither does The Motley Fool. You can follow Dan on Twitter @DanCaplinger. 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.