Safe Bulkers (NYSE:SB) is one of the first major dry-shipping companies to report its earnings each quarter. Management has set up a number of expectations with the prior earnings release and conference call that investors tend to quickly forget. You should prepare yourself ahead of time by studying the past so that you can react quickly, if necessary, to the numbers and commentary reported.

Prior-quarter results
Due to the fast-changing environment for dry shippers, comparison to the prior quarter is often more meaningful than the year-ago period. In Safe Bulkers' last earnings report on Aug 21, net revenue was $41.4 million and net income was $24.6 million, with $0.19 in adjusted EPS. The average daily rate each ship brought in revenue was $17,116. Average daily cost to operate each ship was $4,414.

Look for a positive or negative change in these numbers based on new contracts negotiated for Safe Bulkers vessels. Many of these already have or soon will come off fixed-rate contracts -- some at higher-than-market rates, others below. As such, predicting the numbers ahead of time would be difficult at best.

Safe Bulkers declared a dividend of $0.05 per share in its previous quarter. Pay particular attention to the new dividend amount to see whether it's higher, same, or lower than this previous nickel. Often the change (or lack thereof) in the dividend tells you more about management's true confidence in the future than anything else they say.

Conference call
Management's fourth-quarter forecast during its previous conference call has proved correct on the demand side so far. At the time, President Loukas Barmparis stated, "Going forward in Q4, market prospects seem positive as strong grain exports from the U.S. Gulf are expected and the seasonal coal trade is expected to produce demand for Panamax size vessels." Look for comments in the conference call about the current outlook for Panamax ships, whose rates are up significantly since the company's last conference call. 

Last time, Safe Bulkers gave no forecast for Capesize ships, other than mentioning the then current state of affairs. This suggests Safe Bulkers didn't have a handle on the future at the time; perhaps management has better visibility this round.

CEO Polys Hajioannou predicted that "if" the Capesize rates are in the low $20,000s (which they are as of this writing), then Panamax rates will be over $10,000 per day which he seemed excited about. With a current rate 50% even higher than that or $15,000 today, Safe Bulkers may prove to be in great shape with the report.

Listen to other dry shippers
Navios Maritime Partners (NYSE:NMM) is set to report on Oct. 31. Diana Shipping (NYSE:DSX) will report on Nov. 19. Pay attention to their conference calls and listen to what they have to say about the industry as a whole.

In the last Navios Maritime Partners conference call, CEO Angeliki Frangou forecasted quite simply, "We feel that drybulk environment is brightening." VP of Business Development George Achniotis gave a bit more detail. He stated, "We note that for the first time in four years, there is an expectation that net demand will hold or exceed supply. Consequently, we could see Panamaxes and Supramax rate levels pick up during the second half of the 2013 throughout to the Cape rally seen recently." This is in line with what's been reality so far.

Diana Shipping company representatives didn't go out on much of a limb in the way of concrete forward predictions. However, they did rattle off a lot of industry analysts' expectations that focused on the worldwide ripe age of shipping fleets and predicted a lot of scrapping to take place. Scrapping of ships reduces the overall overhang supply for the industry. If demand picks up, this helps raise rates and profits further for shippers. Diana Shipping also predicted some of the routes themselves will get longer such as coal coming from Colombia and heading to China. This should further soak up supply.

Final foolish thoughts
When Safe Bulkers reports, the outlook of it and its competitors will give you greater insight into the future than anything. Listen to the conference calls of as many dry shippers as you can. It will give you an investing edge over the market.

Nickey Friedman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. 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.