Click Here for Earnings, Whisper Numbers and...

Click Here for Earnings, Whisper Numbers and More

As an investment tool, the Internet is giving individuals access to truckloads of data that were recently off-limits to them. And nowhere is that more apparent than during quarterly earnings-report season, which is in full swing this week.

Thanks to the Net, small investors have access to many companies' earnings data immediately upon release. They also can track Wall Street profit estimates in advance of reports, listen to conference calls with analysts and tap into so-called whisper numbers.

For better or worse, Wall Street has become a slave to quarterly reports: Stock prices can rise or fall dramatically depending on whether a company meets analysts' expectations or sounds upbeat in its conference call, for example.

Even investors who can take a longer-term view of a stock are finding it increasingly important to know what Wall Street expects of the company in the short term and how the company describes its near-term business prospects.

To be sure, the earnings-related Net resources available to individual investors aren't perfect. Small investors still are barred from many conference calls, for example, and often must search several Web sites for all the earnings information they need.

Still, the data seem certain to improve as more Web vendors try to attract investors to their sites.

What follows is a look at Net resources available to investors who want to track Wall Street's official and unofficial profit estimates and how to get in on corporate-earnings conference calls.

Earnings Estimates: Where to Get Them

Analysts at Wall Street brokerages continually size up the prospects of companies they follow and publish estimates of quarterly and annual earnings.

In turn, three firms--First Call Corp., Zacks Investment Research Inc. and IBES International Inc.--have become well-known for tracking analysts' views and compiling "consensus" earnings estimates for thousands of companies.

For example, AMR Corp., the parent of American Airlines, will report its second-quarter earnings on Wednesday. On average, the 13 analysts following AMR expect it to report $1.68 a share, according to Zacks. So that is the "consensus" estimate.

All three earnings trackers offer free information on their Web sites, which are http://www.firstcall.com; http://www.zacks.com; and http://www.ibes.com. But many of their services, naturally, are subscription-based.

If you simply want to find current consensus earnings estimates for individual companies, many financial Web sites list projections from one of the three earningstrackers. The Zacks information above on AMR, for example, came from Yahoo Finance (http://finance.yahoo.com).

Several Web sites contain calendars with scheduled earnings release dates for individual companies. For example, at the bottom of the CBSMarketWatch.com (http://www.cbs.marketwatch.com) home page, investors can click on "Earnings Calendar & News" for a list of companies reporting profits over the next four weeks.

But earnings calendars are relatively new to many sites--and it shows. CBSMarketwatch.com doesn't let investors search by company. Neither does Microsoft's MoneyCentral (http://moneycentral.msn.com). In other words, investors can't simply enter a ticker symbol to find out when a company will report. They must instead scroll through each day's listing hoping to find the companies they're interested in.

Yahoo Finance, however, does have a way to find individual company reporting dates. Under "Reference" on the home page, go to "Calendars: Earnings."

'Whisper' Numbers: The Inside Scoop?

Whisper numbers are rumors that swirl on Wall Street about individual companies' earnings. They're unofficial, but they're sometimes more accurate projections of quarterly results than Wall Street analysts' consensus numbers.

Whisper numbers have come about in part because of the now-infamous earnings-management game companies and analysts play. Companies often downplay their prospects to analysts, making it easier to top the official consensus estimate.

Analysts, meanwhile, are happy to keep their official estimates lower--and easier for companies to hurdle--because clients are happy when companies beat projections and stock prices rise as a result.

In contrast to their official estimates, analysts are said to whisper more accurate predictions to favored clients in the days leading up to a company's earnings release.

Once limited to tight-knit circles on Wall Street, some whisper numbers have become widely disseminated the era of Internet chat rooms.

There's no denying the import of whisper numbers. Companies that top analysts' consensus estimates but fall short of the whisper number often see their shares slump in the short run.

At least four Web sites publish whisper numbers. But there are several caveats for individual investors.

For one, the sites don't reveal the sources of numbers they list. And even if they did, it would be impossible to determine the credibility of those sources. So investors don't know whether the numbers originate with analysts or institutional investors who have direct access to a company's top management--or are simply the conjecture of other individual investors.

Also, the Web sites have different methods for calculating their numbers. It's not clear which of the systems is better because neither of the two Web sites interviewed for this story have analyzed the accuracy of their numbers. (They say they will in the future.)

Nonetheless, an academic study last year showed that whisper numbers culled from media stories and Internet chat rooms were, on average, 8% more accurate than analysts' consensus numbers as compiled by First Call.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of the credibility of whisper-number sites is the fact that one site, WhisperNumber.com (http://www.whispernumber.com), was bought last week by a company that's 38% owned by banking and brokerage giant Citigroup.

Whisper numbers are most common among volatile technology, Internet and telecommunications stocks. So it's no surprise that information on those sectors dominates the sites.

WhisperNumber.com covers 200 stocks but will expand to 500 by the third quarter reporting season and 1,000 by year-end, said Paul Hauck, a co-founder of the site. The site gathers data via software that scans Internet chat rooms and media stories for whisper numbers, Hauck said.

By contrast, another site, TheWhisperNumber.com, (http://www.thewhispernumber.com) often extrapolates a current whisper number based on a company's past earnings performance. For example, if a company has beaten consensus estimates by a penny for four straight quarters, the whisper might be a penny higher than the current consensus.

The two sites say they let users submit whisper numbers, but screen the data to exclude numbers that are obviously wrong or are submitted by questionable sources.

Whisper numbers also are listed at EarningsWhispers.com (http//www.earningswhispers.com) and StreetIQ.com (http://www.streetiq.com).

Conference Calls: How to Listen In

As important as it can be to know what a company is expected to earn, the company's discussion of its quarterly results when finally reported--and the outlook that management gives, if any--can be far more critical in determining the stock's short-term fortunes.

For proof, consider Intel. The semiconductor titan said last week that second-quarter profit was 2 cents a share below the consensus estimate and as much as 6 cents below the whisper numbers.

Nevertheless, Intel said in a conference call with analysts the day of its earnings report that its second-half prospects look bright--sparking a rally in the stock the next day.

For years, individual investors have been shut out of the conference calls in which analysts pepper management with questions about the firm's business outlook. Many companies still bar small investors, in some cases arguing that the logistics and cost of hooking in thousands of shareholders are prohibitive. However, several Web sites have popped up that list upcoming conference calls that are open to investors.

In many cases, small investors listen to "Webcasts," which amount to an audio feed via the Net. Generally, individuals can't submit questions. However, a few companies now accept queries via e-mail and respond by e-mail within a few days.

Bestcalls.com (http://www.bestcalls.com) now lists about 220 upcoming conference calls. It also has a schedule of replays of past calls for about 100 to 150 companies. Everything on the site is free.

Bestcalls.com lists the dates and times of upcoming and archived calls, as well as details on how investors can tune in. However, investors can't listen to conference calls directly on Bestcalls.com. Instead, BestCalls.com directs them to other sites.

Bestcalls.com was launched in late March by Mark Coker, a veteran individual investor who grew frustrated when a company barred him from its quarterly conference call even though he was a longtime shareholder.

The site already has more than 40,000 registered users, Coker says.

BestCalls.com also has a feature that notifies users via e-mail of calls by companies they're interested in.

Investor Broadcast Network also lists conference calls at its free site (http://www.vcall.com). IBN broadcasts the calls itself; investors listen to Webcasts directly on its site. IBN also broadcasts other financial events, such as Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's congressional testimony slated for Thursday.

Several other Web sites list conference calls. They include CBSMarketWatch.com, Broadcast.com (http://www.broadcast.com) and the Motley Fool (http://www.fool.com).

StreetEvents.com (http://www.streetevents.com), a unit of Boston-based Ccbn.com that broadcasts conference calls for institutional investors, plans to open itself to individual investors later this year.

Investors should keep in mind that the sites aren't all-inclusive. Just because a call isn't listed doesn't mean the company isn't having one.

Computer networking giant Cisco Systems, for example, lets small investors listen to its conference call, Coker said. However, the company lists only a replay, not the live call, on Bestcalls.com. Cisco was worried about attracting too many people and did not want the live call listed, Coker said.

If you have tips for finding earnings-related information on the Web, let us know. Walter Hamilton can be reached by e-mail at walter.hamilton@latimes.com

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