Encouraging Signs From Smallville

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- While Facebook (FB) continues to grab the headlines as its shares continue "adjust" to reality, there are some encouraging signs from some smaller names this earnings season.

As skeptical as I am about the current state of the economy, I continue to see some rays of light. My economic training was in the Austrian School of economics (free-market, microeconomics), so I am by nature a skeptic, especially in an environment where government spending is out of control. But there were several earnings reports yesterday that have me mildly encouraged.

Snowmobile and all-terrain vehicle company Arctic Cat ( ACAT) reported a blowout quarter, with revenue rising 49% to $111.3 million, well above the $98.8 million consensus, and earnings beating the consensus by 22 cents.

After pulling back following last quarter's earnings release, Arctic Cat, which sells the epitome of discretionary products, has seemingly resumed its run up. The fact that consumers are opening their wallets for ATVs flies in the face of some of the consumer-sentiment data that suggests consumers are hunkering down.

Hunting and fishing retailer Cabela's ( CAB) saw its second-quarter revenue rise 11.6% to $627.3 million, easily beating the $606.3 million consensus estimate. Earnings per share of 47 cents beat the consensus by 8 cents. That's the fourth consecutive quarter the company has bested consensus earnings estimates.

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This company has been quite a phenomenon over the past several years. Dismissed by critics because of its credit card operations and the "museum-like" feel of its stores, Cabela's shares have risen more than 800% since bottoming in late December 2008.

Fears of financial trouble due to ownership of its credit card operations were all but put to bed during the last recession, when defaults and write-offs stayed low and the markets realized that Cabela's Visa card holders have strong credit profiles and pay their bills. While this business is more recession proof than others, continued earnings surprises are nonetheless encouraging.

Switching gears to small technology names, laser system manufacturer Electro Scientific Industries ( ESIO) reported better-than-expected revenue of $59 million, compared to the $55.4 million consensus, and earnings of 6 cents a share, compared to the 3-cent consensus. At first glance, the report did not seem stellar, since revenue for the quarter fell 23% compared to the same quarter last year, but besides besting estimates, the company also said better times may be ahead.

Electro Scientific said its order backlog is the highest it has been in six years, which is pre-recession. The balance sheet remains solid; Electro Scientific ended the quarter with $185 million, or $6.32 per share, in cash (excluding restricted cash) and short-term investments, and no debt.

It currently trades at book value, and at just 1.44 times net current asset value, which is very cheap in my book. The company also initiated an 8-cent quarterly dividend in 2012 and currently yields 3%. There is also an active stock buyback program.

Those are small rays of light from three companies. While not enough to declare a return to brighter economic times, they're still slightly encouraging -- even for a skeptic.

Back to Facebook. The stock's woes have little to do with the economy. Expectations were simply too high, and any negative news will continue to weigh on the shares. Even considering the aftermarket drubbing the stock suffered yesterday, this is still a company with a $48 billion market cap -- and one that is unproven.

At the time of publication, the author was long ESIO.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Jonathan Heller, CFA, is president of KEJ Financial Advisors, his fee-only financial planning company. Jon spent 17 years at Bloomberg Financial Markets in various roles, from 1989 until 2005. He ran Bloomberg's Equity Fundamental Research Department from 1994 until 1998, when he assumed responsibility for Bloomberg's Equity Data Research Department. In 2001, he joined Bloomberg's Publishing group as senior markets editor and writer for Bloomberg Personal Finance Magazine, and an associate editor and contributor for Bloomberg Markets Magazine. In 2005, he joined SEI Investments as director of investment communications within SEI's Investment Management Unit.

Jon is also the founder of the Cheap Stocks Web site, a site dedicated to deep-value investing. He has an undergraduate degree from Grove City College and an MBA from Rider University, where he has also served on the adjunct faculty; he is also a CFA charter holder.

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