Earnings On Tap: Where The Surprises Are

Forbes.com, Winter, 2012. This article was written with Oliver Pursche, the Co-Portfolio Manager of GMG Defense Beta Fund. It was part of a series of articles developed under an agreement with forbes.com to work with a variety of contributors and assist them in delivering actionable investment ideas each week. The site, forbes.com is one of the top 500 sites in the world with nearly 10 million subscribers and nearly 100 million page views a month.

I pine for the good old days sometimes. Before companies provided earnings guidance, we all had to wait for the day earnings were released to know what they were going to be.

So much more drama. And tension. And for those companies that missed expectations, pathos. Now of course we have the so-called “pre-announcement,” where companies provide what they believe is a more accurate estimate of the earnings they will announce. In the nomenclature of the convention, companies “guide upward” or “guide downward” and their stocks are treated accordingly.

In investor relations circles–that most thankless of professions–I believe they view pre-announcements as akin to letting some of the air out of the tire. Whatever. I don’t have issue with the practice of pre-announcing per se and on the upside, when looked at in the aggregate, pre-announcements offer some useful information.

While utilities, industrials, technology and telecomm are indicating strength, for a broad sector bet, consumer staples and consumer discretionary may offer less risk. Reason: these other areas of the market are likely to require more agility and stock picking skills than simple broad based exposure.

For example, in the technology sector, Apple (AAPL) is expected to see earnings shrink from $12.30 a year ago, to $10.15 for first quarter 2013, while at the other end of the spectrum, literally and figuratively, Microsoft (MSFT) is expected to show a 28% increase in year-over-year earnings, something many analysts argue has not been priced into share prices.

Likewise utilities, a traditional favorite among retirees, could prove challenging for investors. Although the sector is expected to show earnings growth, the growth is mostly concentrated in four companies: Duke Energy (DUK), NRG Energy (NRG), Northeast Utilities (NU) and Edison International (EIX).

In my view, a deep or long-felt correction in the second quarter appears unlikely. That said, a pullback of 6% to 10% in the market before resuming its upward trajectory seems possible.

Accordingly, investors are advised to look at stocks exhibiting above average growth and ideally pay a solid dividend.

Some of my favorites include: Procter & Gamble (PG) and Kellogg (K) in the consumer staple sector, Microsoft (MSFT) and Cognizant Technologies (CTSH) in the technology sector, and Glaxo SmithKline (GSK) and Novartis (NVS) in the pharmaceutical sector.

Disclosure: The GMG Defensive Beta Fund (MPDAX), which Oliver Pursche co-manages, owns PG, MSFT, GSK, NVS.