Ready to Be Surprised This Earnings Season?

07/22/2014 7:00 am EST


There are positive and negative surprises in any earnings season that a trader can act on once they occur, however, the staff at illustrates how a trader can try to find companies that are likely to report a surprise and then get in ahead of time.

Like any earnings season, we're going to see both positive surprises and negative surprises.

This screen however focuses on more than just earnings surprises, but instead goes over the importance of both earnings surprises and sales surprises, and why as an investor you should care so much about them.

As you know, if a company reports earnings above expectations, that's a positive surprise, and the price in general should go up.

If the company reports earnings below expectations, that's a negative surprise, and the price in general should go down.

But a surprise is more than just a snapshot of an extra few dollars and cents a company made or lost in that one period. Instead, it's a glimpse into what a company's earnings could be, or should be, in the future.

And when these surprises occur, the market tries to quickly re-price that stock to reflect these changes.

Not All Surprises Are Created Equal

Some earnings surprises are due to revenue increases, and other earnings surprises are due
to cost cutting measures.

Top line growth (or sales growth) usually produces the biggest price reaction over cost-cutting, because an increase in sales is generally thought of as more sustainable. Once you've cut costs, where’s the future growth going to come from? You can only cut costs so much. You need sales to drive long-term growth.

There's also guidance. What the company sees down the road is important.

If you've got a positive surprise on one hand, but then downward guidance on the other, that'll usually produce a negative reaction. Why? Because they've taken away the hope generated from the surprise by saying the future outlook will likely be weaker than expected.

There's also the idea that some surprises aren't really surprises—either because a company has a history of continuously beating their estimates or the stock has already priced in a surprise by running up or going down prior to the announcement; therefore, the surprise in that direction really wasn't a surprise at all. That's where you'll sometimes see an opposite reaction to an earnings surprise—a "buy the rumor sell the fact" type event.

But while predicting which companies will surprise or not can be difficult, the benefit of an earnings surprise will typically last for one to three months after a surprise is reported.

So you can get in after a company reports a surprise, or you can try and find companies that are more likely to report a surprise, and get in ahead of time.

Screening Parameters

The screen I'm running today starts off with:

• Last EPS Surprise greater than or equal to 5%
(Stocks posting positive surprises have a tendency of surprising again.)

• Last Sales Surprise greater than or equal to 5%
(A positive sales surprise shows top line strength. And once again, a company that has surprised in the past is more likely to surprise again in the future.)

• Zacks Rank equal to 1
(Only Strong Buys can get through.)

• Price greater than or equal to $5 and Average 20-day Volume greater than or equal to 100,000

Just these few criteria narrows down the universe from over 8,800 stocks to just over 30.

Here are 5 stocks that meet this criteria:

Click on the interactive chart to view data over time. 

Click to Enlarge

1. US Ecology, Inc. (ECOL): Provides waste treatment, disposal, recycling, and transportation services to commercial and government entities in the United States. Market cap at $656.22M, most recent closing price at $35.55.

2. Magellan Midstream Partners, LP (MMP): Distributes refined petroleum products. Market cap at $15.15B, most recent closing price at $66.77.

3. W.P. Carey & Co. LLC (WPC): Provides long-term sale-leaseback and build-to-suit transactions for companies worldwide and manages a global investment portfolio. Market cap at $4.27B, most recent closing price at $62.47.
4. Tiffany & Co. (TIF): Engages in the design, manufacture, and retail of fine jewelry worldwide. Market cap at $11.58B, most recent closing price at $90.50.

5. Lazard, Ltd. (LAZ): Operates as a financial advisory and asset management firm. Market cap at $5.37B, most recent closing price at $44.13.

By the Staff of

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