earnings surprisingly strong, sales a little light–the stock plunges: why?

strong eps, light sales

Sometimes the way that the mind of Wall Street expresses itself in stock prices strikes casual observers as odd.  A prime example of this is when a company (DELL is a recent example) reports earnings that exceed the Wall Street consensus handily, yet the stock doesn’t go up the way you’d expect.  Instead, it drops like a stone.  The market seemingly ignores the strong earnings and points to revenues as the cause of its unhappiness.

Seems kind of petty.

Is there any sense to this reaction?

Yes  ….and no.

the yes part

Remember, the growth stock investor’s mantra has two features:

–surprisingly strong earnings

longer than the market expects.

In situations like the one I describe above, it’s the assumed lack of permanence in the earnings gains that the market is making a negative reaction to.  The argument is this:

Companies make money either by selling more stuff, in which case revenues will rise, or by cutting expenses, in which case they won’t.  So earnings without revenues = cost-cutting.  Cost-cutting opens the door to two bad outcomes:

–sooner or later (probably sooner) the company will run out of expenses to cut and earnings will drop back to their pre-surprise level

–the firm may reducing crucial expenditures, such as research and development or customer service to an extent that future earnings prospects are harmed.  Therefore, earnings won’t just drop back to the pre-surprise level, they’ll fall below that.

the no part

The knee-jerk reaction that earnings growth without revenue growth isn’t a good sign will probably turn out to be right in the majority of cases.  But there can be instances where this is a mistake.

As I’m writing this, I’m struggling to find a plausible concrete example to illustrate what I’m about to say–which tells you (and me) something.

Anyway, it’s possible that a company is composed of a fast-growing, high-margin component and a slower-growing, lower-margin (or loss-making) one.  It may be that new products in the high-margin component are what’s creating the slow revenue, fast profit-growth pattern.  It’s even possible that the company in question is preparing to separate into two parts, either by sale or spinoff, in a way that will remove barriers to investors seeing the full potential of the growth component that the mature one creates.

for a positive market reaction?

For the market to have a positive reaction to strong earnings, light sales, I think three things are necessary:

–the company has to communicate clearly what the dynamics of the earnings situation are (it may have competitive reasons for not wanting to do this)

–professional analysts have got to trust what the company is saying and/or find confirming evidence, and

–investors have to be in a relatively bullish mood, so they’re willing to overlook the bearish signal and believe the bullish story.



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