Giving you all the latest in Stock Market Information as it happens...


A Guide To The Australian Reporting Season

In the US, listed companies report their earnings results officially on a quarterly basis, with the great concentration being around the natural quarters of March, June, September and December. The June quarter season has just begun. In Australia, reporting is required only on a half-year basis, although often companies will provide interim quarterly updates. The majority of Australian companies work off a June financial year, meaning December half results posted in February and full year-results posted in August. Increasingly, companies reporting in US dollars (many resource sector stocks for example) are working off a December financial year, meaning their August results are half-years and their February results full-years. Then there are other companies, such as three of the big banks, which report on an “off” cycle to everyone else. But suffice to say, we are about to hit the major reporting season for the year. Next week and the week after will see the first handful of results, the second week of August sees a lot more, and thereafter comes the deluge. By September it's all over. It is important for investors to appreciate that the market response to a result has nothing to do with whether or not a company posts a record profit, or a record loss. Responses will only be based on whether a company matched, beat or fell short of analyst forecasts. Every single day of the year, stock prices are building in earnings expectations. Thus an actual earnings result is only providing confirmation of market expectations, and affirmation of pricing, or otherwise. The inexperienced investor is often perplexed when BHP, for example, announces a record profit yet its shares fall on the day. The reason for the fall is usually that the market had expected an even bigger record profit, and thus is disappointed. One must also not discount the “buy the rumour, sell the fact” effect. A stock may go for a run ahead of its results announcement on anticipation of an “upside surprise”, for example. If the result does surprise to the upside, the stock price can still fall as traders take profits on a successful trade. Which brings us to the contradictory notion of “surprise”. Ahead of a results season, brokers will usually prepare lists of those stocks which their analysts believe may “surprise to the upside” or “surprise to the downside”. Your old English teacher would probably immediately ask “How can one expect something to surprise? Surely it cannot be a surprise if expected?” However, the butchered English simply reflects an analyst's view that perhaps market consensus is a bit conservative, for example, on a particular stock, and that it will find itself surprised by the result. In the US, it's very easy to know immediately whether a result has “beaten the Street” or not given a very specific focus on earnings per share (EPS) and revenue forecasts and comparable results. In Australia, we tend to focus on the profit number. This is problematic, given profit results can be impacted by such things as tax changes, asset write-downs, depreciation charges and so forth. Analysts will often speak of a “messy” result, which is one which requires the report to be picked apart before the “real” performance can be gauged. It may not thus be immediately apparent whether the result is a “beat” or not. Sometimes an analyst needs a few hours to arrive at realistic opinion. This also flows through to the important notion of result “quality” as opposed to “quantity”. The quantity of a result is simply the profit or earnings number which can be compared to last half and the same half last year, as well as previous management guidance and analyst forecasts. But let's say for example, that XYZ beat forecasts by a long margin, but did so because it closed and sold off several shops, slashed staff numbers, pared back inventory lines, brought forward tax losses, fully depreciated machinery – any such notion that suggests earnings were more about downsizing and less about growing revenues. Such a result lacks quality, because it paints a misleading picture of corporate growth. Another example is banks which post solid trading profits from their proprietary desks in time of high market volatility. It's a good result in a quantitative sense, but not so in a qualitative sense given such volatility is unusual and such profits cannot be expected to always be repeated. Quality or otherwise can take many forms. Then having been hit with a series of numbers to interpret from the period past, the market will also take note of ongoing company guidance. Analysts do not only have FY10 forecasts running, they also have FY11 forecasts (and beyond) in their models. Guidance is just as important as the result. For example, a company's accompanying statement to a result might be something like “We saw difficult trading conditions in FY10 but evidence in the past month or so suggests prices are firming and margins are increasing. We are forecasting an FY11 profit improvement of X”. Once again, the value of X is only important by comparison to analysts' FY11 forecasts, not as an absolute number. But if a company posts a weak result but sweetens it with better than expected guidance for the period ahead, that stock may still find buyers when selling might have been expected. Note, however, that some companies may choose to provide only near term guidance, or, perhaps citing “uncertain global conditions”, provide none at all. There is no obligation, but the market does tend to assume by default that no news is bad news. Just when you thought it was getting complicated, we must also consider the notion of “sandbagging”. Given it is always better for a company to beat market expectations than fall short, company managers will often understate their ongoing guidance, or even guidance updates they produce leading up to a result. This might strictly be called misleading disclosure, but such an accusation is hard to prove if management argues it was simply being “conservative”. By understating guidance, companies have a better chance of “surprising to the upside” when the true result is revealed. This is known as sandbagging. Macquarie Group, for example, became known as a serial sandbagger back in its glory days before the GFC. Every half the bank would post conservative guidance and every result would blow that guidance away. But the market became so used to this game that analysts would simply take Macquarie's profit guidance and add 10-20% as a rule before declaring any “surprise”. So it helps not to become too transparent. On the other side of the coin, some companies have been known to constantly miss guidance, leading to unexpected profit downgrades, which suggests they may be serial over-staters. As to whether this is deliberate or simply innocent evidence of rose-tinted glasses is by the by. Companies which do seem to overstate guidance are usually held in contempt and marked down for such “risk”. So taking all of the above, the small investor must be wary of any knee-jerk reactions to profit results. BHP might report a record profit, but that does not necessarily ensure its share price will go up. Did the result beat analyst forecasts? Did the result beat company guidance? Was it a result of good quality? Was it a “messy” result? Was ongoing guidance positive? And was it more positive than FY11 forecasts suggest? All of these considerations must be made. Often you'll see a stock price spike one way and then do an about-turn soon after, or even the next day. Stock analysts can tell you immediately whether a profit result was higher or lower than consensus, but before readjusting their views they will first tune into the conference calls held by management, pick through the details of the report, look at guidance, re-run their models and generally reformulate their outlooks. It may not be until the day after, or more, that an analyst decides, for example, to upgrade a stock to Buy. So it's best for longer term investors to leave short term trading to the traders, and to wait for the dust to settle before considering portfolio adjustments. Enjoy results season.