There's a secret menu at many of the country's popular fast food joints.
Walk into Fatburger and order a Hypocrite, and you'll get a veggie burger topped with bacon. In-N-Out's off-menu items include a Neapolitan milkshake and an "animal style" burger that's dipped in mustard before it's cooked.
Wall Street has a secret menu, too. Companies use certain code words during their quarterly earnings releases, meant only for savvy investors. Those in the know recognize these terms as their cue to bail, because more bad news is on the way.
At the risk of ruining Mr. Market's code -- and since even In-N-Out is now publishing its "secret menu" on its website -- let's take a closer look at these terms that should have you reaching for the ripcord.
It's funny how a company can see years in to the future one minute, only to doubt its ability to forecast the current quarter the next. When a company bellyaches about "reduced visibility," "lack of visibility," or "no visibility," it's a safe bet that things will go downhill in a hurry.
In November 2008, Sirius XM Radio (Nasdaq: SIRI ) reported its third-quarter results. The satellite-radio giant included a table with its annual operational and financial projections -- all the way out through 2013.
A quarter later, that visibility was rendered obsolete. The company refused to provide guidance for near-term subscriber targets, even though it had confidently gone out on a five-year limb a few months earlier.
The company's silence was a wink to its skeptics, since Sirius XM went on to shed subscribers in the two subsequent quarters. It bounced back handsomely after that, rattling off subscriber gains in each of the three most recent quarters, but its sudden lack of visibility communicated plenty at the time. Its vision and catalysts are a lot sharper now.
In contrast, Jerry Sanders, CEO of Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD ) during the tech stock meltdown of 2001, had no problem with the truth.
"It is almost embarrassing to watch CNBC and see how many CEOs are saying they have no visibility," he told attendees of a tech conference in May of that year. "Well, we have visibility, and it ain't good."
He was right. Tech stocks got slammed. AMD is in better shape these days, delivering better-than-expected quarterly results earlier this month, with analysts expecting revenue to climb 21% higher this year.
In January 2008, Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) wasn't doing so well. Co-founder Jerry Yang -- CEO at the time -- figured that blaming the climate would be a good idea.
"While we will continue to face headwinds this year, we believe that the moves we are making will help us exit 2008 stronger and more competitive and return to higher levels of operating cash flow growth in 2009," he noted in the company's quarterly report.
Really? Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) was having no problem growing nicely -- even as the economy turned. Why was Yahoo! facing these stiff winds? When a ship's captain or a plane's pilot complains about headwinds, they're citing a legitimate impairment. When a company blames "headwinds," leadership's crummy steering is usually to blame.
Yahoo! was desperate, and those in the know saw through the flimsy euphemism. Three days later, Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) made its head-turning buyout offer -- which Yahoo! ceremoniously rebuffed.
Yahoo! is back on track these days. Its new leader is too blunt to lean on "headwinds" as an excuse. Microsoft's buyout offer has turned into a symbiotic partnership. Display advertising and earnings are growing again. In short, Yahoo!'s running the way should have been all along.
Yahoo!, Microsoft, and Google are all projected to grow their profitability nicely this year. Wall Street appears to believe that all three players are turning around their online advertising, while Microsoft enjoys healthy gains on the software side. Tailwinds, anyone?
Executives don't last forever. Some retire. Some leave to pursue other business opportunities. However, when a CEO or other high-ranking exec leaves for "personal" reasons, it's time to raise those eyebrows.
Former Pacific Sunwear (Nasdaq: PSUN ) CEO Seth Johnson stepped down for "personal reasons" a couple of years ago -- while the surf-wear retailer was drowning beneath a wave of negative comps.
There are a handful of cases where a "personal" resignation is legit, but it's usually a case where the company's choosing to go in a new direction because it's troubled by where it's heading. In short, the reason's more "personnel" than "personal."
PacSun went on to struggle through the recession, but it hasn't hopped on the recovery wave like some of its nimbler peers. Earnings and comps fell sharply in its latest quarter.
Much like headwinds, companies often discuss challenging climates, environments, and markets.
Weight Watchers (NYSE: WTW ) blamed the "challenging" environment for diet-plan providers in its latest quarter, projecting lower earnings this year (after profits dipped a year earlier). You'll never hear the company fault model-destroying trends like a broader selection of healthier supermarket options. Until Weight Watchers turns around, don't expect its stock to put on extra weight.
Just like pinning the tail on headwinds, pointing the finger at external challenges is far less incriminating than admitting to any internal shortcomings.
A call to action
These words tend to pique value hunters' interest. They'll hear the cryptic-yet-apocalyptic terms, wait for the implosions, and run into the rubble looking for garage-sale Picassos.
That's a noble strategy if the companies' business models are salvageable. But I'm a growth investor. I would rather buy into the disruptors than the disrupted. When I hear a company use any of these euphemisms, I immediately begin to seek out the stocks that will profit from the demise.
As a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers analyst team, my picks have beaten the market because of my "animal style" approach toward analyzing consumer trends. As a team, we're smoking past Wall Street's averages, because we spend more time finding tomorrow's winners than ferreting through yesterday's losers.
Once you recognize the early symptoms of a company falling apart at the seams -- and with Wall Street's secret menu, now you do -- you'll be a better growth stock investor.
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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz wonders why more investors don't know about Mr. Market's cryptic distress calls. He does not own shares in any of the stocks in this article. Microsoft and Weight Watchers are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft. The Fool has a disclosure policy.