Saturday, October 17, 2009

What is a Real Earnings Surprise?

By: Michael Vodicka
Zacks Investment Research

Have you ever wondered why some stocks skyrocket on a positive earnings surprise while others fall off a cliff? In this article we are going to tackle this little-understood issue. Better yet, I will share with you two ways to profit from earnings surprises. More on that later.

3 Reasons Stocks Can Drop After an Earnings Surprise

Estimates vs. Whisper Number: The standard definition of an earnings surprise is when actual earnings come in higher than earnings estimates. But those estimates are the “published” numbers from the brokerage analysts. Quite often investors tend to develop their own unique set of expectations based on sentiment, sometimes referred to as a “whisper number”. If there is too much optimism ahead of the release, then actual earnings will need to be a blowout in order to appease the market’s inflated expectations. This is the most common reason why some stocks fall after a supposed earnings beat.

Quality of Earnings: The highest quality earnings come from having robust revenue growth. This means that the company’s products or services are in high demand and should stay that way. However, far too much of the earnings being reported these days are generated from cost cutting and other "accounting gimmickry". The problem is that the benefits of these moves don’t last. When the market gets a whiff that the earnings are unsustainable, no matter how strong the beat, shares will most likely drop.

Forward Guidance: Plain and simple, when you buy a stock you are taking an ownership position. And what owners of companies care about is the stream of future earnings. So if a company beats earnings for the quarter just reported, but warns that future quarters will see lower earnings, then that stock will go down…and go down fast.

2 Ways to Make Money on Earnings Surprises

So now that we have outlined things that can wrong after an earnings surprise, let's shift gears and talk about something even more important: how to turn a profit from earnings surprises. Here are two ways to go about it.

Good Way: Buy shares in any company that had an earnings surprise and then rose the day following the news. These stocks experience what academics call the "Post Earnings Announcement Drift". Studies clearly show that these stocks usually outperform the market over the next 9 months. Conversely, you should sell any stock in your portfolio that misses its earnings number as it is likely to underperform the market for the next few quarters. The downside of this approach is that there are literally thousands of stocks to choose from every quarter.

Best Way: Look for those rare opportunities where investors simply guessed wrong about a company's earnings prospects. Specifically, find companies with shares that were declining for about a week prior to the earnings report, yet amazingly produced a big earnings surprise. Sure, the price will jump at the open following the news, but our research clearly shows that the stock will continue to rise over the next couple weeks as investors play catch up.

Where to Find These Stocks

Most of the information to find these "Best Way" earnings surprisers is publically available and free. But I don't know of anyone that puts it together in an easy-to-use format that will help you consistently find these winners.
Mike focuses on finding the best momentum stocks for customers. He is also the Editor in charge of the Zacks Surprise Trader service. Learn more here:

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