Alcoa's Earnings Like a Rorschach Test

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- If you are prone to motion sickness, you might feel dodgy after reading headlines about Alcoa's ( AA) first-quarter earnings, reported after the close of trading yesterday.

"Alcoa First-Quarter Earnings Slide," said The Wall Street Journal.

But The Financial Times was apparently hearing none of it. They went with the headline: "Alcoa shines with surprise $94m profit."

The Journal's headline number builds on a comparison with last year's first-quarter. By the third sentence, they are even engaged in a sequential comparison -- with the fourth-quarter.

The Financial Times, by contrast, showcases Alcoa's post-tax profit, which, they made clear in their first sentence, came in the face of an expected loss. They played the expectations game.

Just in case you think these clashing headlines were a fluke, Seeking Alpha went with: "Alcoa Surges Past Estimates," while a separate but equally negative Wall Street Journal headline said: "Alcoa Squeezed by Lower Prices: Big Aluminum Maker's Profit Falls 69% as Higher Energy Costs Add to Pressure."

So who was right? The scope and scale of the expectations-beat was such that the surpassing of estimates has to be the takeaway thought, the headline number, the showcased concept.

Earnings per share came in at 9 cents, which were almost indescribably ahead of the expected 3 cents loss. Revenues came in ahead of consensus too, even though aluminum prices were down 9% on the year. That big a beat should get top billing -- in headlines and minds.

At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.

Marek Fuchs was a stockbroker for Shearson Lehman Brothers and a money manager before becoming a journalist who wrote The New York Times' "County Lines" column for six years. He also did back-up beat coverage of The New York Knicks for the paper's Sports section for two seasons and covered other professional and collegiate sports. He has contributed frequently to many of the Times' other sections, including National, Metro, Escapes, Style, Real Estate, Arts & Leisure, Travel, Money & Business, Circuits and the Op-Ed Page.

For his "Business Press Maven" column on how business and finance are covered by the media, Fuchs was named best business journalist critic in the nation by the Talking Biz website at The University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Fuchs is a frequent speaker on the business media, in venues ranging from National Public Radio to the annual conference of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

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