Every week, a few companies release earnings that just don't live up to Mr. Market's expectations. Sometimes, an earnings stumble is a signal to sell, but digging in the dirt is also a good way to find turnaround candidates while they're getting beaten down. So let's take a look at a few interesting companies that missed their earnings mark last week.

Today, it's a danse macabre through the ghosts of this author's past -- and present. Let's get started.

We stepped in what?
The first miss comes from my checking-account backer. Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) is hardly used to underperforming. Before last week, the megabank hadn't reported earnings below the Wall Street consensus since 2005. Time to start a new streak, then, because the company could only scrounge up net profits of $0.82 per share, while the analysts wanted $1.06.

The subprime-mortgage market strikes ag -- oh, hey, wait. Bank of America didn't even mention the "S" word in its earnings release, and it bragged about increasing its mortgage originations by 27% over last year. No, the new bogeyman is the capital market.

The bank has invested more than $600 million to build up its investment-banking division over the past few years, and it generated $298 million in profits in the year-ago quarter. But the recent liquidity meltdown, coupled with some bad trading, yielded a $717 million loss.

Maybe this retail bank should focus on being a retail bank and leave the investing services to the investment bankers -- these conditions make it tough even for the experts. Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) managed to beat expectations over the summer, but Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS) couldn't do it, for example.

The company is still a cash cow, though. Even in a disappointing quarter, Bank of America pulled in $3.7 billion in net income, so the fat 5.2% dividend yield remains well supported. Still, it would be cool if this lumbering giant would pick up the pace a bit. I've owned this stock for two years, and I've reinvested dividends along the way, for a market-lagging total return of just above 10%. C'mon, guys, show us what old Carolina can do!

Mo' money, mo' problems
The next underperformer on our list is online stock broker and banker E*Trade Financial (NASDAQ:ETFC). Yep, it's where my IRA lives. You might think that a market crisis would bring in extra trading commissions from panic sellers, but these guys also sell loans and other services. In the end, the Street's hopes for net profits of a dime were dashed by a $0.14 loss per share.

E*Trade is smarting from the credit crisis, thanks to that plethora of extracurricular activities. I'd be surprised if fellow e-broker TD Ameritrade (NASDAQ:AMTD) were to report a similarly gloomy summer when it reports tomorrow -- that company is far more focused on the brokerage business.

Fellow Fool Rick Munarriz can tell you all about E*Trade's predicament, and how the trading side of the house is still in tip-top shape. I don't generally mind diversification, since it's a strategy that can protect your company from the worst mood swings of your primary market. It's just a shame that E*Trade had to move into a secondary area that was heading for the edge of a cliff. Ouch.

Aww, that's cute
OK, let's leave the financial sector behind. The final stop on this disappointing tour is far more cuddly -- say hello to Build-A-Bear Workshop (NYSE:BBW), where you can stuff your own teddy bear and watch customers leaving the store with new friends in ever-greater numbers. My kids have a Texan turtle and a humble horse from these stores, and I once owned a few shares of the stock, too.

Earnings came in at $0.15 per share, three cents below the average analyst estimate. And while sales were 8% higher than last year, the growth was far from organic. The core North American market saw same-store comps dropping by 10%.

Things could still be worse. All of the new stores are funded by cash from operations, and Build-A-Bear is debt-free. But the cash balance is dwindling, and the toy peddler's operating cash flow was negative for the first half of the year. We don't have cash-flow data for the third quarter, but don't expect any miracles.

So the company knows only one way to grow, and that's through store openings that are getting harder to finance. It's almost time to pick a poison: Take on debt, or stop building so many bear factories. Build-A-Bear is the only toy store currently trading on the major exchanges, and Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) is the biggest toy seller in the world. Some say it's time to take this company off the public markets, too, to make some unpopular decisions away from the scrutiny and influence of angry shareholders. I'm not sure it would help, but it could be worth a shot.

Go home, Fool
Some of these underperformers are victims of larger circumstances, while others might have only themselves to blame. It's up to you to decide which down-on-their-luck companies should be able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and which really are stuck in the mud.

Further Foolish reading:

Seeking great deals on unfairly punished stocks? Philip Durell and his merry band of Fools at the Motley Fool Inside Value newsletter service are standing by to help you find great stocks at ridiculously low markdowns. Try a 30-day trial subscription to see whether bargain-hunting is right for you. Wal-Mart is an Inside Value pick, and Bank of America is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund is a Bank of America shareholder but holds no other position in the companies discussed this week anymore. He doesn't mind taking a dig at his own holdings -- keeps 'em on their toes. The Fool has a disclosure policy, and you can see his current holdings for yourself.