As regularly as the seasons, four times a year the stock market regulators – who are concerned that investors should know exactly what is going on within the companies they invest in – demand global corporations show us what they ve got . No company with shareholders is immune so the range and breadth of industries is staggering from investment banks to technology companies and industrial giants. The general principle is that the company must declare anything that might influence investors to make decisions. So the key number of course is literally ‘the bottom line’ – how much was made or lost. That is just the start. Interpreting the numbers is as hard in a recession as in the good times because companies have an extraordinary ability to window dress the results. Sometimes a company won’t break out different divisions, so you can’t tell which area lost money. Often the company will write off more assets or shift things around to get rid of rubbish or make things look better than they really are. Just about every industry has accounting tricks of one sort or another, which is why we read the briefing notes from sector analysts to help explain what’s going on. But here are just a few things to keep an eye out for in the weeks ahead.
When it comes to the banks, the big bogey is the level of bad debts, especially in consumer loans and credit cards. Look to see whether the percentage of non-performing (bad debts) is rising and what provision is being made for this. Also what the bank is doing to strengthen its capital and get rid of its toxic assets. In retailing, ignore the gross numbers and look instead at ‘same store sales’ where a store has been open 12 months or more. That gets rid of distortions created by the novelty factor of opening new shops. For airlines the key here is to look at how many seats were available and how many of those seats they filled and at what price. Were there fewer planes flying, and still flying empty? It’s the same with hotels, where the questions are what was the average rate being charged for the rooms and how many rooms were actually sold? Ultimately because industries and sectors are so different it can be like comparing apples and oranges. But by the end of the first few days of the earnings season, trends will have emerged. Companies will have hit or missed the analysts’ expectations and we will start to have a really good picture of how the world’s corporations are performing. On a different subject: there is speed and there is haste and then there is the bankruptcy of General Motors which lasted just 40 days, during which time the company wiped out tens of billions of dollars in debt, announced the closure of a dozen plants, threw thousands of employees out of work and left thousands of common stock shareholders with nothing. Incredible! Legacies and troubles that took decades to create, wiped clean in just over a month. If only all our problems could be solved that way!
Tune in toRichard Questeach weekday at 9pm Cairo /9pm Kuwait /9pm Riyadh /10pm Dubai on Quest Means Business. For more information go to www.cnn.com/qmb