Earnings season is an excellent time to tune in to company conference calls to get a feel for where a business stands and where it could be headed. However, it's important not to overvalue any single earnings call -- and instead -- weave the findings into the broader investment thesis.

Aside from following businesses on your radar, it can also be useful to listen to industry leaders and follow macroeconomic data to get a better understanding of how a single company is performing relative to its peers, its industry, and within the context of the broader economy. 

The stock market has had a volatile 2022, partly because investors are digesting a mixed bag of good and bad indicators. For example, last Friday, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a scorching hot jobs report that pushed the unemployment rate down to a multi-decade low of just 3.5%. Recessions usually entail rising unemployment, so the low number signals a healthy consumer. However, the BLS also reported that the consumer price index rose 9.1% for the 12 months ended June 30, 2022, compared to the same period a year ago -- the highest year-over-year reading in over 40 years. Falling energy prices could mean that inflation cools off when the BLS releases the July report Wednesday morning. But there's no denying that the economy finds itself in a strange limbo between inflation, a strong jobs market, and high consumer spending. 

In addition to macroeconomic readings, Apple (AAPL -0.74%), Walmart (WMT 1.85%), and United Parcel Service (UPS -0.76%) just made major announcements that help paint a clearer picture of what's going on across some of the most important sectors of the U.S. economy. Here are key takeaways from each company and how they could impact your investment portfolio. 

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Image source: Getty Images.

The power of brand loyalty

Apple's growth slowed in the third quarter of its fiscal 2022. But the company still posted record revenue thanks to strong iPhone and services results. 

Apple continues to prove why it is the most valuable U.S.-based company. Despite being in the tech sector, which has been one of the worst-performing areas of the market in 2022, the stock is actually beating the S&P 500 year to date and is down just 11% from its all-time high. 

What's amazing about Apple is that the stock has crushed the market and is up over 600% in 10 years, but it still isn't overpriced, with just a 26.4 price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that Apple has grown its services business, benefited from international growth, and operates a high-margin business that translates into high profits. The second is that the company has reduced its outstanding share count by a staggering 38% in the last 10 years, which boosts earnings per share (EPS). 

A blemish from Apple's results was lower-than-expected Mac revenue, which was nearly outpaced by the iPad for the quarter. But overall, the tech titan indicated that consumer spending for its products was stronger than expected.

Although the iPhone dominates Apple's product mix, it's important to call out its services segment. Services grew 12% in the fiscal third quarter compared to the year-ago period and made up 24% of total revenue. However, services have a far higher gross margin than products. For the quarter, products had a respectable 35% gross margin, which is excellent for a consumer electronics company. However, services had a gross margin of 71%.

All told, Apple's core products remain strong, and the company has unlocked a high-margin revenue stream that continues to fuel its bottom-line growth.

Dark clouds for the American consumer

Walmart won't report earnings until Aug. 16. However, it released a bleak update on July 25 that called for lower-than-expected fiscal Q2 2023 and full-year profits despite higher revenue. 

Walmart is struggling to offset higher inflation-related costs. It also finds itself with uncomfortably high inventories as customers curb discretionary spending and pivot toward essentials.

For Walmart and other big-box retailers, the narrative has completely shifted over the last two years, going from a consumer-driven pandemic-induced buying spree of discretionary goods to a much different buyer profile in 2022.

Walmart's updated guidance and the challenges it continues to face are similar to what it reported for Q1. Investors should pay close attention to Walmart's commentary on its second-quarter earnings call because it could reveal further details on the trends pressuring the retail industry.

Delivering record results

UPS reported earnings on July 26. As expected, package delivery volumes slowed. However, the company said that volumes slowed by more than anticipated, including an 8.2% decline in residential volumes for Q2 2022. But UPS said that it expects volumes to pick up in the second half of the year as companies try to reduce their inventories by marking down items in time for the holiday season. When combining Walmart's commentary with UPS', an investor gets a better sense of how inflation and inventory levels are affecting retailers and package delivery companies. 

Despite the slowdown in delivery volumes, UPS is guiding for full-year operating margin of 13.7%, alongside record revenue, operating income, and adjusted EPS. And that's coming off incredibly difficult comps in 2021 and 2022.

UPS' results and guidance show its ability to pass along higher input costs to its customers. Investors should pay attention to the company's performance during Black Friday and the holiday season, as retailers could offer big sales and require additional shipping services from UPS even if consumer spending for discretionary products remains weak. 

Reading the broader economy

The impact of inflation is rippling far past just consumer demand, but top companies are still excellent long-term buys. Apple showed that a premium product mix paired with its growing services business can overpower economic headwinds. Meanwhile, Walmart's lack of brand differentiation and low-margin, high-volume strategy fell victim to inflationary pressures. UPS displayed different ways to grow its top and bottom line, as well as an ability to pass along costs to consumers.

The biggest takeaway from Apple, Walmart, and UPS' results is that industry-leading companies tend to be able to navigate challenges better than their peers. On one hand, Apple and UPS provide discretionary products and services. However, consumer electronics and shipping have become essentials in the modern economy to the point where both companies can offset higher costs even as economic growth slows.