If you read enough business briefs these days, you'd think companies that weren't just managing to meet earnings expectations were horribly missing estimates. In fact, many companies are doing quite well, thank you very much.

We're here to celebrate those that not only beat Wall Street's predictions, but actually laugh in the face of analysts for bringing in such miserly forecasts. The companies below have all soundly trounced earnings estimates by 20% or more in the last quarter.

Company

CAPS Rating

EPS Surprise

Est. EPS % Growth, Current Quarter

Est. Long-Term Growth

3M (NYSE:MMM)

****

28%

(18%)

9%

EnCana (NYSE:ECA)

****

21%

(41%)

12%

First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR)

**

30%

38%

35%

Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC)

***

68%

(31%)

11%

Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO)

**

25%

(22%)

16%

Source: Yahoo! Finance; NM = not meaningful; NA = not available.       

But it's not enough just beating estimates to become a winning stock. Analysts are notoriously lousy at forecasting results, and there could be one-time items that pushed the earnings ahead -- Wall Street professionals typically don't include extraordinary events in their forecasts.

Everyone makes mistakes, so we're not going to look only at the past. We'll check whether analysts have a bead on future performance, too, by enlisting the help of Motley Fool CAPS, the community-intelligence tool for rating both stocks and stock pickers. With CAPS, we'll see which of these top companies will have the last laugh.

The joke's on them
There is less than meets the eye when you look more closely at these surprise results, portending a potential earnings miss in the future. Yahoo! was only able to beat estimates on the strength of its "other income" tripling as it sold its stake in Gmarket for net proceeds of $120 million. Wells Fargo might have benefited from lower interest rates generating a surge in mortgage refinancing, but non-performing assets soared 45%, and Goldman Sachs says it's "among the highest rates of growth of any bank" it covers.

Collapsing poly si prices are stirring up a turf war among solar stocks, allowing Yingli Green Energy (NYSE:YGE) and others to challenge First Solar as a low-cost producer. Add in a two-year delay in a tariff being set for its big, 2,000-megawatt power plant in China, and First Solar may not come in first for investors for a long time.

Yucking it up
The one jokester that seems to have truly turned in a solid quarter, despite the weaknesses that abound in the economy, is diversified manufacturer 3M. Considering the company'w representative segments in health care, manufacturing, automotive, and consumer products, CAPS All-Star TMFKopp says 3M has "proven its mettle" by also spreading out geographically, with "only 36% of sales coming from the U.S. and a strong and growing contribution from emerging markets."

There may finally be a rebound that's measurable, as the Institute for Supply Management's purchasing managers index jumped sharply to 52.9 in August, the first time it has been above 50 since January of 2008. If that trend continues, 3M could see its lagging segments begin to pick up the pace again. While they might be representative of some of those industries we'd expect to see lead us out of recession first, I'm not ready to call for a recovery yet.

Foolish takeaway
A lot of the market's rally thus far has been fueled by low-quality stocks. CAPS member wmras likes the security that 3M's dividend offers, and at just 16 times next year's earnings, it offers a better price than you'll find with some other conglomerates like GE and Textron (NYSE:TXT). Still, I'd like to see more from 3M's other units, as well as other suppliers of basic products and services, before investing here.

Got a different take on 3M? If you think there's some funny business afoot, let us know by heading over to Motley Fool CAPS and sounding off.

First Solar is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. 3M is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services today, free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Rich Duprey does not have a financial position in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.