NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Earnings report season for oil-tanker shipping companies kicked off on Wednesday when General Maritime (GMR) released its first-quarter numbers.

But, as usual, when it comes to handicapping stock-price movement, it's all about the outlook.

This might especially be the case for the companies that haul black gold from the oil rich to the oil hungry. Most tanker operators are expected to return to profitability this quarter after varying stretches of red ink.

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But no one really cares about the past. And, further, as measured against consensus Wall Street forecasts, bottom-line numbers posted by tanker companies are nearly irrelevant. That's because "consensus" when applied to this sector is a misnomer. There is no consensus.

Check out the range of first-quarter earnings targets for Frontline ( FRO - Get Report), for example. The low end is pegging a profit of 28 cents a share, the high end $1.01. The same goes for Nordic American Tanker ( NAT - Get Report) and Overseas Shipholding ( OSG - Get Report) and the rest.

The reason for the discrepancies? Shippers rarely provide guidance on revenue or on operating expenses (called "opex" in industry jargon), especially if they have ships looking for work on the spot market, where rates can and do fluctuate wildly. Add in the tremendous operating leverage of the tanker industry in general -- because costs are fixed, any jump in rates drops to the bottom line -- and any small discrepancy among analysts' opex projections becomes amplified in their profit projections.

And so it comes down to the macro-rate environment for tankers, the balance sheets, the dividends or lack thereof, and what the companies have to say about each when they report quarterly results.

As for the macro environment, make no mistake: a recent surge in rates for Very Large Crude Carriers, or VLCCs, has lifted these high-beta momentum stocks across the sector. On average, tanker equities have gained 23% since the beginning of the year, compared to the S&P 500's 6% gain.

The tanker-stock rally has given rise to cautionary pontification on the one hand -- these names are overpriced; there will be profit-taking! -- and a bullish shift in sentiment among many investors and analysts on the other. The cautionary view worries about the potential oversupply coming from newly built ships scheduled for delivery, and points out that only a few publicly traded tanker companies operate VLCCs. Rates among other ship classes haven't risen nearly as much, and in some cases have fallen below their opex levels.

The bulls take the broader, longer-term view, noting that the second half of the year will likely bring increased OPEC crude production (boosted by a global economic recovery) and enough demand to overcome any swelling in the number of ships on the water.

One key data point will arrive in two weeks, at least when it comes to the short-term: the May cargo count, which indicates the number of VLCCS that were hired out for the coming month. As of Wednesday, 45 ships had been fixed. The monthly average is 95. Both March and April exceeded the average, unexpectedly, with about 105 VLCC fixtures apiece.

The thinking is: if May's cargo count fails to reach at least the average, bearishness will enter the market, ship owners will have less bargaining power with their customers on the other side, spot rates will fall -- and so will stock prices. On the other hand, late spring and summer are seasonally weak, no matter what.

With all that in mind, here are five tanker stocks to watch for the coming earnings season.

Frontline is the big daddy of the group, its CEO John Fredriksen considered one of the savviest ship owners in modern history.

Earnings Date: May 28

Range of Wall Street EPS Estimates: 28 cents to $1.01

Year-Ago First Quarter EPS: 96 cents

50-day Moving Average: $32.71

Latest Dividend Yield: 2.75%

Key Issues and Earnings Themes: What will Frontline do with its dividend? Last quarter, it distributed 25 cents a share, well below its normalized yield of 15% -- another reason bearish observers think the stock is overvalued, since it's now trading at around the same level ($35-ish) as it was back when times were more lush and it could afford pay out more cash to investors.

Frontline has had to deal with an overburdened balance sheet -- a net-debt-to-capital ratio of 60%, according to Urs Dur, an analyst at Lazard Capital Markets -- which has limited the company's ability to distribute dividends, if not expand its fleet. (The company recently bought two newbuidlings, set for delivery over the next two months.)

On the other hand, the company has high exposure to the spot market (70% of its fleet) and to VLCCs, a good thing if rates continue to rise, but bad for any investor looking to limit risk.

JPMorgan's shipping analyst, Jonathan Chappell, thinks Frontline can at least maintain its dividend yield. But that's not enough for him to recommend the stock at this level. Bearish on rates in the second half of the year, Chappell wrote in a recent research note that he expects this "high-beta stock to underperform its peers over the next 3-6 months."

Nordic American Tanker, the sector's all-spot-market play, draws a lot of strong opinions from investors and analysts.

Earnings Date: May 10

Range of Wall Street EPS Estimates: 9 cents to 59 cents

Year-Ago First Quarter EPS: 46 cents

50-day Moving Average: $30.85

Latest Dividend Yield: 3.15%

Key Issues and Earnings Themes: "This a dead stock," said one hedge fund investor of Nordic American tanker, before pointing out that its shares have traded in a range of $28 to $33 for the last year. "It's not an exciting story."

Over the long haul, that might not be the case. "It's been a great investment for a lot of people," says Lazard's Urs Dur. "If you held the stock from '97 till today, your cost basis would be negative." That's because of the company's deluxe dividend strategy over the years, part and parcel with its balance-sheet rigor.

JPMorgan's Chappell expects the debt-free Nordic to make a sequential hike in its dividend in the first quarter, and to start "material year-over-year dividend increases" starting in the third quarter.

Further, because of Nordic's all-spot strategy, any rise in rates will balloon its profits.

What could hold back the stock in the coming year, however, is a proclivity for equity offerings and the resulting shareholder dilution. Also, Nordic primarily operates Suezmax tanker ships, rates for which have been soft this year, chiefly because of supply among this asset class has overwhelmed demand.

Overseas Shipholding's diversified fleet could end up casting a shadow on its earnings.

Earnings Date: May 4

Range of Wall Street EPS Estimates: Loss of 54 cents to a profit of 81 cents

Year-Ago First Quarter EPS: $1.00

50-day Moving Average: $44.76

Latest Dividend Yield: 3.5%

Key Issues and Earnings Themes: Overseas Shipholding, despite its name, owns 22 U.S.-flagged tanker ships, which transport oil "coastwise" from the Gulf of Mexico to American ports. This segment of its business has, well, flagged. (Under the Jones Act, all ships transporting oil on these routes must be U.S. owned and operated.)

Because of economic weakness in these parts, some industry experts expect 1,300 ships to be laid up in 2010. Investors will be looking for what the company has to say about its Jones Act fleet, though most pros are convinced that the U.S. business will continue drag on its results.

With Frontline, though, OSG is the only U.S.-listed tanker company that runs VLCCs. It also has a fairly big exposure to the spot market -- 40% of its fleet. Like its peer, then OSG stock will likely rise and fall with the VLCC market.

Teekay Corp. ( TK - Get Report) told investors last week to expect a quarterly dividend between 32 cents and 37 cents a share.

Earnings Date: May 4

Range of Wall Street EPS Estimates: Loss of 26 cents to profit of 59 cents

Year-Ago First Quarter EPS: 31 cents

50-day Moving Average: $24.78

Latest Dividend Yield: 5%

Key Issues and Earnings Themes: Teekay is known as an operator of Aframax-size ships, which have performed terribly this year relative to VLCCs.

Teekay also sails product tankers -- ships that carry refined liquids like jet fuel -- another segment that has suffered from weak rates this year.

Some analysts call the company's stock "fully valued" at current levels ($25.34 as of Wednesday's close), though JPMorgan's Chappell has a December 2010 price target on the shares of $33. He rates the stock neutral, but believes the company's "improving liquidity" will allow it to keep paying down its debt "on the way to becoming a net debt-free entity" or to make some strategic ship purchases.

Ship Finance ( SFL - Get Report), which has its fleet locked into long-term contracts, offers much more transparency than its peers.

Earnings Date: TBD

Range of Wall Street EPS Estimates: 51 cents to 59 cents

Year-Ago First Quarter EPS: 69 cents

50-day Moving Average: $19.16

Latest Dividend Yield: 5.8%

Key Issues and Earnings Themes: Growth is the issue for Ship Finance, the one-time Frontline subsidiary with 23 VLCCs in its fleet.

Wrote Chappell in his recent earnings-preview research note, "We would have a more favorable view on the shares if Ship Finance could add assets to its current portfolio that are immediately accretive to its dividend distribution," which stands at about 30 cents per share each quarter.

The strong VLCC market has boosted Ship Finance shares nearly 50% year-to-date. Still, unlike the rest of the group, Ship Finance has a conservative chartering strategy -- many of its ships are under long-term contract with Frontline's charter subsidiary. If rates on the spot market continue to shoot higher, that conservatism may make its stock less attractive. Money at that point may move to the riskier names in the sector.

-- Written by Scott Eden in New York

Scott Eden has covered business -- both large and small -- for more than a decade. Prior to joining, he worked as a features reporter for Dealmaker and Trader Monthly magazines. Before that, he wrote for the Chicago Reader, that city's weekly paper. Early in his career, he was a staff reporter at the Dow Jones News Service. His reporting has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Men's Journal, the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, and the Believer magazine, among other publications. He's also the author of Touchdown Jesus (Simon & Schuster, 2005), a nonfiction book about Notre Dame football fans and the business and politics of big-time college sports. He has degrees from Notre Dame and Washington University in St. Louis.