NEW YORK – Corporate America has been talking a good game this earnings season, but a closer look shows the results are not nearly as strong as CEO optimism might lead investors to believe.
In fact, a number of companies are coming up short on either earnings or revenue as measured against Wall Street estimates, even as their leaders try to paint a picture of steady returns and solid prospects for 2013. Some investors say earnings expectations have been managed so low they are easy to beat, even if sales come up short.
The 24 hours through Friday morning - the busiest period yet in this earnings season - serve as a good example of the phenomenon.
Between Thursday morning and Friday morning, nearly 40 companies in the S&P 500 reported quarterly results.
Some, like insurer Travelers Cos Inc and the railroad operator Union Pacific Corp, reported record figures, born mostly of pricing strength in their businesses.
But more companies had quarters like those reported by Internet search heavyweight Google Inc or fast-food chain Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc, whose core markets appear to be slowing quickly, much to the consternation of shareholders.
Even though a majority of S&P companies have beat expectations overall this season, 79 percent of the S&P companies that reported results in the last day missed earnings and/or revenue estimates.
It is a further confirmation that USA Inc is facing a challenging environment that does not look likely to turn better anytime soon.
As for the CEO comments, Reuters analyzed the news releases issued by those companies, specifically isolating the lead quote from the chief executive in each one.
Some were brief, just a sentence or two. Many were lengthy paragraphs. All totaled, they expended 2,669 words explaining how their corporations did in the last three months.
Phrases in the releases point to a general sense of well-being that might be at odds with the actual results.
Excluding generic words, the most common phrases were "we made good progress," "we are well positioned," "we are pleased with" and "we are pleased to."
In fact, there was not a single four-word phrase anywhere in any of the reports that indicated a negative sentiment. Experienced investors are not necessarily surprised by the behavior, the numbers notwithstanding.
"I think this is business as usual," said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank in Chicago. "You tamp down your expectations, you beat them, then you thump your chest."
Investors are growing increasingly frustrated by the drum beat of weak figures, seemingly without explanation. General Electric Co was the latest example on Friday morning.
"There it is again, this whole revenue story. They hit on the earnings number, but revenues keep missing. That is the story that we are hearing across the line," said Ken Polcari, managing director of ICAP Equities in New York.
It "further solidifies the same story that people are concerned. And although these companies are beating these numbers, the numbers are much lower so the beat is not that difficult. But clearly they are all missing on the revenue line, which is a concern."
The beat rate for revenue forecasts so far this season is 41.4 percent, trailing both the 55 percent average over the past four quarters and the long-term average of 62 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data.
But if they are actually doing that badly, they certainly are not talking about it.
Breaking it down excluding generic words, the most common word was "growth." It appeared some 30 times.
GE talked about continuing to "execute on our growth strategy." Huntington Bancshares Inc was pleased that results "reflect steady growth in a number of key strategic areas." Tool maker Snap-on Inc reported "continued progress along our defined runways for coherent growth."
To be sure, not everyone was so rosy. Some companies acknowledged a lack of forward momentum or challenges in expanding in the current environment.
Among them, Boston Scientific Corp is "focused on executing our strategy to drive this organization back to revenue growth," while Capital One Financial Corp said it could sustain strong returns, "even in an environment with low industry growth."
After "growth," the next-most common non-generic word was "strong," which appeared 19 times. In contrast, some derivation of the word "weak" was used only six times.
Lower down the list, "progress" showed up six times - and despite the shaky economy, "uncertainty" turned up only once.
That said, some corporate chiefs tried to embrace their circumstances and at least reassure investors that, current challenges notwithstanding, there is reason to think things will get better - someday, anyway.
"While our sales momentum and current financial results reflect today's challenging conditions, we continue to see significant long-term opportunities for brand McDonald's and remain confident in the underlying strength of our business model," McDonald's Corp CEO Don Thompson said.
(Additional reporting by Charles Mikolajczak and Rodrigo Campos.; Editing by Edward Tobin, Leslie Adler and Andre Grenon)