It’s Crunch Time for Corporate America

The fiscal cliff has been averted for the time being with an extension to the deadline moved to March 1, as far as the budgetary cuts and other tax details. For you, the next several weeks will be focused on the fourth-quarter earnings season, which, akin to the third quarter, is expected by many market pundits, including myself, to be somewhat on the slow end.

The ball will begin to roll today with Alcoa, Inc. (NYSE/AA), which will be the first Dow stock to report in the fourth-quarter earnings season, kicking off the earnings season parade. What happens with Alcoa will be scrutinized, because the company is a key indicator; Alcoa is one of the world’s top aluminum makers and is a barometer for the global economy, as the metal is used in industrial applications, including aircraft, automobile, commercial transportation, packaging, building and construction, oil and gas, defense, consumer electronics, and industrial applications.

In the third-quarter earnings season, Alcoa beat on Thomson Financial consensus earnings, but revenues will likely be an issue, as will be the situation with many U.S. companies. Technology is an area that needs to provide some leadership this year, and chipmakers need to adapt to mobile technology. (Read “Why Chipmakers Need to Focus on the Mobile Market.”)

For the fourth-quarter earnings season, the overall revenue growth is estimated to be 2.1%, down from the previous three percent, according to FactSet. (Source: “Earnings Insight: S&P 500,” FactSet, January 4, 2013.) This is simply not what you would expect if the economy was healthy. And while there is some hope and optimism for the fourth-quarter earnings season, I expect more disappointment.

Based on the current estimates, earnings for the S&P 500 are expected to rise 2.4% in the fourth-quarter earnings season, although well down from the 9.2% growth cited in September, according to FactSet. This means profits are sliding. So far for the fourth quarter, 78 S&P 500 companies have issued negative earnings-per-share (EPS) guidance, versus only 32 companies reporting positive guidance.

The top-performing earnings growth predicted for the fourth-quarter earnings season is in the financial sector, according to FactSet. The weakest areas of earnings growth in the fourth-quarter earnings season are predicted to be in the industrial, healthcare, and information technology sectors.

As in past quarters, the key, according to my stock analysis, is companies growing their revenues to drive earnings or the earnings growth being generated by cost cuts. This is critical and could give us a good indication on how well corporate America is actually doing. Based on the somewhat soft gross domestic product (GDP) growth, I’m not expecting any major upside surprises.

The reality is that many companies cut costs during hard times and should be in a better condition now. If the economy was truly healthy, we would see earnings growth driven by revenues. In addition, what the company says about the future is important.

The key is to monitor the companies that are global in nature, especially those that produce the raw materials essential to economic renewal, such as copper, energy, iron, forestry, and concrete. Without growth here, the prospects may be dim.

As I have said, revenues going forward, especially organic growth, will be critical. We want to see revenues grow, instead of cost cuts, to drive earnings. Without revenues growing, it is difficult to imagine a healthy economy, which is a concern that could hamper growth.