Last week, Alcoa (NYSE: AA) officially kicked-off third-quarter earnings reporting season.
I've always shunned reading too much into a single company's report, particularly Alcoa's. Now I have all the hard evidence I need to back me up. In honor of Myth-Busting Mondays, let me first prove to you why the aluminum giant's earnings mean - in the emphatic lyrics of Edwin Starr - "Absolutely nothing!"
Then in my next column, I'll share the three statistics that really matter this earnings reporting season. Let's get to it…
Old Traditions Die Hard
It's been a long-standing tradition on Wall Street to treat Alcoa's results as a barometer for the health of the global economy. And, more importantly, as a leading indicator of what to expect when the rest of corporate America reports results. Part of that tradition can be attributed to the fact that Alcoa's the first company in the Dow 30 to report results - and that its products are traditionally vital to the economy.
Simply put, old traditions die hard. But it's time to euthanize this one. Why? Because as Art Hogan, Market Strategist at Lazard Capital Markets, points out, manufacturing accounts for only about 15% of the U.S. economy. Plus, very little aluminum goes into manufacturing outside the construction and auto industries.
Translation: As manufacturing's contribution to the U.S. economy keeps shrinking, Alcoa's significance does, too. Or as Standard & Poor's Howard Silverblatt, says, "Materials is an important sector, but it's very small and not very indicative."
Accordingly, trying to use Alcoa's results alone to predict the outcome for a service-dominated economy makes little to no sense anymore.
The latest data proves it, too. Since 2009, when Alcoa missed earnings estimates, 72.4% of the companies in the S&P 500 Index actually beat estimates, according to FactSet data. So much for predicting the fate of corporate America.
What about Alcoa's ability to forecast the direction of the stock market, though? Again, the connection is weak, at best. Fifteen out of the 19 times that Alcoa beat expectations over the last 10 years, the S&P 500 Index increased in value over the next three months.
However, when Alcoa missed expectations over the same period, which is supposed to be an ominous sign for the market, the S&P 500 dipped a mere 0.6% over the next three months. (If the prospect of a 0.6% dip in prices scares you, you shouldn't be invested in the stock market. Just saying.) As John Butters, Senior Earnings Analyst at FactSet, says, "It appears that Alcoa's earnings performance relative to estimates has little predictive value in determining the earnings performance of the remaining companies in the [S&P 500] Index."
Bottom line: Consider this yet another myth busted. Alcoa's results hold no more predictive ability than the gizzard squeezers who tried to tell the Roman emperors when the Huns would attack (to paraphrase Peter Lynch).
So the fact that Alcoa beat results this quarter is meaningless.