Image source: Pfizer.

We've officially entered the heart of earnings season, which means some of the world's largest and most important companies across a swath of industries will soon be reporting their results. One such report that's eagerly being awaited by Wall Street and investors is the Oct. 27 report from Pfizer (NYSE:PFE), which is one of a handful of companies that tend to set the tone for the drug sector.

Wall Street is expecting the pharmaceutical giant to report $11.5 billion in sales and deliver a profit of $0.51 per share. Pfizer has been hit or miss with its revenue figures in recent reports, but it has surpassed Wall Street's EPS forecast in each of the past nine quarters. Keep in mind that past performance is no guarantee of future results, but it's still a nice trend worth taking note of.

The headline numbers that Pfizer reports will undoubtedly be closely watched, but it's the intangibles behind those numbers which define how Pfizer achieved its Q3 sales and profits that are actually far more intriguing. Thus, while I'm not telling you to ignore Pfizer's headline numbers completely, I'd strongly suggest you pay much closer attention to the details below the surface.

Here are some questions that you should be seeking answers for as you peruse Pfizer's quarterly report.

Source: Pfizer.

Is Ibrance's ramp-up still on track?
Oncology is an important component to Pfizer's long-term growth, and the drug within its product portfolio that's likely to garner the most attention in Q3 is metastatic breast cancer treatment Ibrance.

Approved in February, Ibrance is fully expected to become a blockbuster drug, and depending on its ability to expand its label, could deliver $3 billion or more in annual sales by the end of the decade. In its first full quarter (Q2 2015) Ibrance rang up $140 million in sales. Now, Wall Street and investors are going to want to see that Ibrance's prescriptions and sales have improved, and that insurer coverage of the drug has jumped as well. Ibrance isn't a cheap therapy at $118,200 per year on a wholesale level, so ensuring that health insurance companies will pay for it is critical to its long-term success.

Is Pfizer still planning to go shopping?
Pfizer has made no bones about its desire to add growth via acquisitions in the future. With its buyout of Hospira complete as of early September, the question is, where will the company turn next? 

In a previous conference call, Pfizer's management team has stated that it has taken an "agnostic" approach to M&A activity. In other words, Pfizer would be open to either a megamerger or bolt-on acquisitions, but it's certainly looking for products it could buy that will move the needle, so to speak. Investors should be on the lookout for clues as to where Pfizer may look to strike next. Also, it'll be worthwhile to note how much in cost synergies Pfizer has recognized since the closure of the Hospira acquisition.

Source: Pfizer.

Have GEP sales continued to stabilize?
On a related note, Pfizer has also toyed with the idea of either spinning off or selling its global established products (GEP) unit. The company has repeatedly stated that it wants to determine whether the unit -- which is primarily comprised of mature therapies, some of which have come off patent -- could survive as a stand-alone company. Spinning off GEP could prove a wise move as it would make Pfizer's growth and profits easier to understand, and could wind up unlocking shareholder value.

Adding in Hospira's mix of injectable generic drugs should help to offset the sales declines being experienced by Pfizer's mature GEP products. Investors should read the report closely for any commentary regarding a possible break-up, spin-off, or sale of the GEP or other non-core business components.

Are there any plans for a beefed up buyback program or dividend increase?
Shareholder yield has been a big reason why Pfizer's stock has risen as much as it has since 2010. While Pfizer's sales have fallen by more than 25% since 2010, its share price has jumped substantially, propelled by the nearly $65 billion in cash it returned to investors via share buybacks and dividends between 2011 and 2014. In 2015, its $6 billion in buybacks and $7.2 billion in dividends will tack on another $13.2 billion in money returned to shareholders.

The big question on everyone's mind after four consecutive quarterly dividend payments of $0.28 is whether another dividend hike is on the way. Considering that Pfizer has delivered operational growth (albeit small) in each of the past three quarters, I'd like to think a dividend increase is possible, but it'll be interesting to see what, if anything, is mentioned in regard to buybacks and dividends in the upcoming quarter.


Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

Is prescription drug reform a concern?
Lastly, since privately-held Turing Pharmaceuticals increased the price of infectious disease drug Daraprim (temporarily) by nearly 5,500% last month, all eyes have been on prescription drug reform. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton even offered a proposal on how to rein in prescription drug costs and remove some of the pricing power drug companies currently possess.

What Wall Street and investors would be wise to pay attention to is whether or not Pfizer has struggled with its pricing power during the quarter, or if it envisions prescription reforms as being a near-term detriment. Don't forget that specialized cancer drugs like Ibrance boast a hefty price tag, and experimental cancer immunotherapy avelumab will probably cost a pretty penny, too, if approved. Any constraints in pricing for these drugs could adversely impact Pfizer (and the entire sector, for that matter).

What should you do?
For current shareholders of Pfizer, I don't believe you should change your game plan or investment thesis before the company reports its results -- and possibly, not even afterward. Pfizer, despite its recent growing pains, is still healthily profitable, it's generating substantial cash flow, and its dividend yield is enough of an incentive to keep long-term investors satisfied while it works on turning its business around. Until we get a better bead on what, if anything, has changed in Pfizer's outlook, I'd suggest shareholders (and those on the outside looking in) stand pat.

Nonetheless, circle Oct. 27 on your calendars, because that's the big day!

Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.

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