Five Things to Know This Earnings Season

The Finance Professor prepares you for the upcoming deluge of data.
Publish date:

Updated from 3:16 p.m. EST

The first earnings season of 2009 has commenced with the traditional kick-off by


(AA) - Get Report


Related:AA Preview: Have We Seen a Cyclical Bottom? and Alcoa Loss Exceeds $1B in Fourth Quarter

Since Alcoa last reported on Oct. 7, 2008, the market went into a tailspin. We saw the economic and financial crisis deepen as the U.S. Government enacted programs to support the banking


automobile industries. Unemployment took a nasty turn for the worse and fourth quarter GDP is expected to decline dramatically.

All of these issues will factor into the earnings reports and guidance that public companies will provided to investors over the next several weeks.

So what can we expect and be cognizant of this earnings season? Here are five.

1. There are two sides to job cuts.

Many companies have already announced job cuts. In fact, a week before Alcoa's scheduled earnings release, the company announced that it would reduce its global workforce by 13% or about 13,500.

Expect more companies to join the job-cutting bandwagon. This will have two different implications. First, the good news: The companies will be leaner in the future. Now the bad news: These cuts will happen on the back of diminished demand and profitability.

Related:'Good News' on Jobs Is Bad News for Stocks and Cramer: Forget Jobs Data -- It's a Technical Market (Video)

2. Returns to shareholders will be slashed.

This will take two forms. First, despite falling stock prices, the emphasis on staying liquid during a credit squeeze will result in fewer companies issuing new stock repurchase authorizations. Second, dividends at many companies are in danger of being slashed.

While some companies like

General Electric

(GE) - Get Report

have already "protected" their 2009 dividend, many other companies will be seeking to cut dividends. This will be a result of dividend yields that have risen as stock prices fell in 2008 and mounting pressure on certain boards of companies which have received TARP and other government sponsored bail-out programs to retain more cash.

Furthermore, corporate dividends are richer relative to "safe" Treasury yields, implying that either corporate dividends will fall or Treasury yields will rise. Given the economic backdrop and actions in Washington, it is likely that dividends will fall. Many financial companies are expected to slash their dividends, with

Bank of America

(BAC) - Get Report

being the most likely candidate.

3. Get ready for more write-offs.

As corporate restructuring plans accelerate, companies will increasingly revalue assets. We could see the "kitchen sink" effect kick in, which is when a company takes an aggressive stance on writing off assets and taking losses. Kitchen sink quarters tend to occur en masse either systemically due to economic conditions or by sector, due to business specific conditions.

An example would be the huge write-off and charges that were taken in the aftermath of the big three hurricanes -- Katrina, Rita and Wilma -- in the fourth quarter of 2005. This occurred for oil and gas companies that had Gulf of Mexico operations, such as


(CVX) - Get Report



(ETR) - Get Report


When you tune-in to the latest quarterly earnings, be prepared for a much broader-based kitchen sink effect.

4. It's guidance time.

The first earnings season of the year is typically the period of time when most companies that provide guidance will do so for the first quarter and the entire year. To the extent that companies provide guidance, expect those estimates to be tepid at best, with plenty of companies forecasting EPS and revenues well below current analyst estimates.

Furthermore, there is a growing amount of public corporations that have decided not to provide guidance. Just last month,


(COST) - Get Report

elected not to provide hard guidance to investors and analysts. I expect this trend to continue.

Unfortunately, when companies switch to a no-guidance policy, there is typically a negative short term reaction to the stock price. However, that anomaly will dissipate after quick-finger traders have completed their assault on the stock.

5. Margins matter now more than ever.

This earnings season, profit margins are something that we will have to keep a very close eye on. I see two major trends taking place in terms of gross margins:

In retail, we have had one of the slowest holiday selling seasons in many years. Retailers have had to take dramatic markdowns in an effort to generate sales in what was also a shorter holiday selling period than in the past year. As a result, we should expect retail margins to decline year over year. Still, there could be one positive consequence of all the retail markdowns: reduced inventories.

Commodity prices have fallen dramatically after soaring for the last few years and hitting all-time highs last summer. As these prices have fallen, companies that rely on energy, raw materials or food stuffs for product inputs will benefit and their margins should expand. However, be on the lookout for companies that got caught over hedging their commodity costs and are stuck with higher cost contracts. General Mills which reported in December is a great example of a company with margins that suffered due to poor hedging decisions.

Your Homework

The last quarter of 2008 is likely to be a disappointing period for corporate earnings. In addition, the outlook for the first quarter of 2009 and entire year is not going to be rosy. Over the month or so, try to anticipate which companies will cut back on dividends, have positive or negative margin growth and announce new write-offs or layoffs.

Also, be astute and analyze which companies will survive the current recession in strong shape and which ones are not likely to make it. For example,

Circuit City

has already filed for reorganization under the bankruptcy code leaving

Best Buy

(BBY) - Get Report

as the surviving consumer electronics retailer -- even though in the short term, Best Buy's latest results are not likely to impress many investors.

Related:Good, Bad & Ugly This Earnings Season and Forget Earnings

At the time of publication, Rothbort was long BAC, although positions can change at any time.

Scott Rothbort has over 20 years of experience in the financial services industry. In 2002, Rothbort founded LakeView Asset Management, LLC, a registered investment advisor based in Millburn, N.J., which offers customized individually managed separate accounts, including proprietary long/short strategies to its high net worth clientele.

Immediately prior to that, Rothbort worked at Merrill Lynch for 10 years, where he was instrumental in building the global equity derivative business and managed the global equity swap business from its inception. Rothbort previously held international assignments in Tokyo, Hong Kong and London while working for Morgan Stanley and County NatWest Securities.

Rothbort holds an MBA in finance and international business from the Stern School of Business of New York University and a BS in economics and accounting from the Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania. He is a Term Professor of Finance and the Chief Market Strategist for the Stillman School of Business of Seton Hall University.

For more information about Scott Rothbort and LakeView Asset Management, LLC, visit the company's Web site at

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