So far in the third-quarter earnings season, results have suggested that corporations are chugging along despite significant headwinds. Most importantly, there appears to be no sign of economic collapse. The most recent good news came Monday before the market opened, when Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT) reported results that beat expectations and issued positive guidance for the future. The news sent the stock higher at the open and the gains are likely to hold.
An interesting note about action thus far: Stocks across the board are moving higher, with the S&P 500 up nearly 7% in the first two weeks of earnings season. But companies reporting positive earnings are only seeing modest gains — there have been fewer “pops” on positive earnings news or guidance.
The biggest moves with respect to earnings are coming on the downside. Companies that are missing expectations or reducing guidance for the future are seeing share values slashed as a result. For example, Harley-Davidson (NYSE:HOG) lost more than 8% after reporting disappointing operating results last week.
The path of least resistance this earnings season is on the downside. Such is the nature of the Wall Street earnings game. Early in a business cycle, analysts are too conservative or fearful of missing the mark when projecting profits. As a result, companies will blow out the numbers, often followed by huge gains in share price immediately thereafter. Later in the cycle, estimates catch up to reality, and companies find it more difficult to beat. Case in point: Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL). Analysts finally called for too high a number, and the company missed expectations for the first time in many quarters.
The bar is too high. As such, if you are looking to trade stocks of companies reporting earnings, the fertile ground would appear to be on the short side of the market. Here are five companies reporting results that might slide on disappointing news:
Large trucking and logistics company C.H. Robinson (NASDAQ:CHRW) could be in for a rough ride when it reports third-quarter results after the market closes Tuesday. The company missed second-quarter estimates by two cents per share. Q3 estimates are only slightly lower since that report was released. Share value has recovered since falling significantly in July. Still, at around $76, CHRW stock is richly priced, trading for 28 times current-year estimated earnings. With Wall Street looking for 15% profit growth in 2012, any disappointment in results could bring shares down.
Third-quarter earnings kicked off with Alcoa (NYSE:AA) reporting results that widely missed expectations. Alcoa blamed the miss on tumbling aluminum prices. Smaller aluminum producer Century Aluminum (NASDAQ:CENX) reports results after the market closes Tuesday. Estimates for the period have been tumbling over the past 90 days. Have the cuts in profit forecasts gone far enough? Estimates for Alcoa were slashed, too, but the company still missed the mark by seven cents per share. With CENX trading for 13 times current-year estimates — which still are too high — shares could fall with a poor report.
Fast-growing restaurant companies like Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE:CMG) and Buffalo Wild Wings (NASDAQ:BWLD) already have reported strong results for the past quarter. We get operating results from Panera Bread (NASDAQ:PNRA) after the market closes Tuesday. Panera has exceeded estimates in each of the past three quarters, but by the thinnest of margins. This quarter, estimates have inched higher, and the bar now might be too high. With PNRA shares trading for 25 times current-year estimated earnings, a misstep could send shares tumbling.
If you’re looking for an industry likely to be subject for reduced profit guidance, look no further than the defense sector. General Dynamics (NYSE:GD), a large government defense contractor and maker of private jet cabins, reports earnings before the bell Wednesday. Wall Street estimates for General Dynamics have been little changed thanks to the company beating expectations in each of the past four quarters. But given the likelihood of government spending cuts, General Dynamics might be at the end of a nice run. Wall Street expects General Dynamics to grow profits in 2012 by a very modest 5%. With GD shares trading for nine times current-year estimates, the stock is ripe for a 5%-plus reduction should future guidance disappoint.
Recreational company Brunswick Corporation (NYSE:BC) reports results before the bell Thursday. If Harley-Davidson is any indication — and I think it is — Brunswick could face a similar fate. In this economy, consumers are cutting back on or simply unable to afford extra items like recreational products. Brunswick has exceeded Wall Street estimates by a wide margin in each of the past two quarters. That said, estimates for the third quarter have been slashed in the past 90 days, but estimates for the current year and 2012 have been increased. Sellers of BC stock can take advantage of the enthusiasm for full-year profits. Shares trade for 29 times current-year estimates. If the company misses or reduces expectations, Brunswick will fall accordingly.
As of this writing, Jamie Dlugosch did not own a position in any of the aforementioned stocks.