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Earnings Forecasts: Voodoo Science, Pt 1 of 2

The U.S. is a world-beater when it comes to flexible labor regulations. If a business needs to trim back costs to meet projections, it's relatively easy and cheap to do this with a large layoff, or closing down a business. In many countries, this option won't be easy or cheap, and it may not be permitted at all.

Then there is the unexpected. This year Anglo American (AAL.L), following South African labor regulations, announced an impending mass layoff. The South African government countered with a threat to revoke its license to mine.

Many sources of unpredictability are tied to varying views on the purpose of the corporation. Decisions at American corporations revolve around maximizing shareholder value. In many countries, corporations have legal obligations to achieve double, triple, or even quadruple bottom lines that include satisfying shareholders, employees, environmental sustainability, and the community.

While the definitive legal requirements can be quantified and planned for, surprise regulations and ambiguous requirements are another matter. For example, China's Company Law, besides having a nebulous requirement for social responsibility, has a very ambiguous and unpredictable requirement that: "Companies shall provide the necessary conditions for the Party organizations to carry out their activities." But, the when and what of the Party's "activities" are not predictable.

Beyond regulations that support multiple bottom lines, there are social cultural considerations. If customers don't like a corporation's behaviors, for example, a decision that is good for shareholder but bad for the community, they can protest their dissatisfaction with boycotts and vandalism.

Customers can also boycott corporations from countries whose political positions they dislike. In late 2012, the sale of Japanese autos in China tumbled due to a backlash by Chinese consumers who were protesting Japan's actions in the East China Sea.

Forecasting the unknowable and catering to multiple bottom lines are two sources of unpredictable earnings. In Part 2 of Earnings Forecasts: Voodoo Science, the impact of different cultural practices and legal systems that eliminate the usual options to corral sources of unpredictability are explored.

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