By all appearances, corporate America is putting on quite an impressive show during second-quarter earnings season. As of the end of last week, 311 S&P 500 companies had reported earnings, and 77% of them had beaten Wall Street's estimates.

Now before you get too excited, let's recall the disappointing GDP reading that was released last week. Not only was the 2.4% growth rate below last quarter's 3.7% pace, but it also fell short of expectations. And that's about as exciting as trout-flavored gelato.

Add to that the fact that our economy is still millions of jobs lighter than it was a few years ago, and you've got a recipe for pessimism.

So what gives here? Are positive earnings announcements telling us that the economy is better than we think? Or are those upside surprises really just a mirage in an arid desert of economic dysphoria?

A closer look at earnings
One of the primary ways that we might try to discredit the second-quarter earnings excitement is to say that the comparable quarters from last year were low and easy to top.

That assertion should be easy enough to tackle. Below I've picked out a few major, economically sensitive companies that have reported earnings over the past couple weeks to take a look at how the numbers stack up.


Q2 2010 Revenue

Q2 2009 Revenue

Q2 2007 Revenue

Q2 2010 Operating Income

Q2 2009 Operating Income

Q2 2007 Operating Income

Corning (NYSE: GLW)

$1.7 billion

$1.4 billion

$1.4 billion

$435 million

$226 million

$291 million

Nucor (NYSE: NUE)

$4.2 billion

$2.5 billion

$4.2 billion

$200 million

($169) million

$615 million


$4 billion

$3.3 billion

$3.1 billion

$598 million

$295 million

$392 million


$12.2 billion

$10.8 billion

$12.2 billion

$1.4 billion

$924 million

$1.8 billion

US Bancorp (NYSE: USB)

$3.3 billion

$2.7 billion

$3.3 billion

$1 billion

$585 million

$1.7 billion

Source: Capital IQ, a Standard & Poor's company.

What do these numbers tell us? We can say that with quarterly operating income up significantly from 2007, both EMC and Corning are feeling pretty good while Nucor and US Bancorp still have some climbing left to do to get back to where they were three years ago. But from a big-picture perspective, what the second-quarter earnings reports seem to be showing is that corporate America clawing its way back to pre-recession levels.

And that really shouldn't be all that surprising. Based on the advanced reading for second quarter GDP, our economy is currently running at an inflation-adjusted annualized rate of $13.2 trillion as compared with a second-quarter 2007 rate of -- $13.2 trillion.

So instead of having corporate earnings reports and economic numbers at odds with each other, it appears that both are telling a similar tale. That is, a story of a scrappy, determined economy's strides to get back to pre-recession levels.

Looking to the future
Of course, this is all very backward-looking, and investors are constantly trying to figure out what's going to happen, not what just happened. And, to be sure, there were notes of caution in the earnings reports highlighted above.

As my fellow Fool Christopher Barker has pointed out on numerous occasions, Nucor CEO Dan DiMicco has stayed stubbornly pessimistic about the recovery despite the improved bottom line for his company. UPS' CFO, meanwhile, talked about an "anticipated slow pace of the U.S. recovery and a cautious outlook for Europe" while US Bancorp said it's still waiting "for further evidence of a sustainable economic recovery."

But those wary thoughts came along with a slew of more optimistic views. UPS raised its 2010 guidance, while EMC said it would top its previously announced guidance. Possibly more notable, Corning raised the amount it expects to spend on 2010 capital expenditures, while EMC sees an 18% to 19% boost to its R&D spending. Not only does this show confidence on the part of both businesses, but business spending like this will only help encourage the recovery.

And though US Bancorp was definitely on the more cautious side, its earnings release -- like larger competitors JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM) and Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) -- showed a drop in provisions for credit losses, which suggests a continued recovery in the financial system.

Back to square one
It appears that earnings reports are not actually at odds with what's been going on with the overall economy, but a closer look at what's going on unfortunately brings us back to a very unsatisfying place. It's a place where good news, bad news, hope, and concern all mingle together to create a pretty befuddling investment environment.

What should investors be doing then? Personally, I've been scratching my head over the extent of investor pessimism despite the good data that's been seeping into the mix. I've likewise been surprised that though investors have been so nervous, they've left some of the best, most stable companies out there with the most attractive valuations and pretty tasty dividend yields.

So like The Motley Fool itself, I've been a buyer lately. Confusion and uncertainty are undoubtedly uncomfortable, but when it comes to the stock market, opportunity often seems to tag along.

Are you finding buying opportunities amid the confusion? Head down to the comments section and share your thoughts.

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Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. You can check out what Matt is keeping an eye on by visiting his CAPS portfolio, or you can follow Matt on Twitter @KoppTheFool or on his RSS feed. The Fool's disclosure policy assures you no Wookies were harmed in the making of this article.