Quarterly earnings are exciting events, and they can often cause a stock to move quickly, both to the up and down side. In many cases, what causes the stock to suddenly jump is clear cut, but in some other cases, the cause-and-effect relationship isn’t so obvious. And, increasingly, more companies are making moves that seem counterintuitive or are outright baffling.
The reason why the surprise move is becoming more common is simple: alternative metrics. Tech introduced a variety of alternative ways to measure a company’s success beyond conventional financial measurements in the 1990s, and that tradition has continued today. Things like ARPU (annual revenue per user), DAUs (daily active users), DTV (daily transaction volume), GMV (gross merchandise volume), and so on are all used for tech companies because they’re considered a more accurate measure of growth than things like just revenue and earnings. And since early-stage tech companies often have no earnings, these metrics become all the more important to show that the company will—someday—actually turn a profit.
Although alternative metrics may move a stock (and these metrics are used outside of tech more and more frequently, while the companies that produce these metrics are also growing as more conventional companies use tech as a marketing or sales channel), they aren’t the only things that can move a stock.
In addition to this quarter’s revenue and this quarter’s earnings (which are arguably the most important stock movers), guidance can also impact a stock. Take, for instance, Roku (ROKU), which recently reported above-expected revenue and earnings for the current quarter and strong annual sales guidance—but their earnings guidance for the fourth quarter was around 0 dollars, despite expectations of $7 million guidance. The stock fell 12% in after-hours trading when the news hit.
Since guidance has two factors—revenue and earnings—there are two options to miss here. What makes things even more frustrating is that sometimes companies will intentionally provide low revenue and/or earnings during a quarter where they’ve beat current expectations, because they know they can set a low bar for themselves without causing the stock to fall too much. If a company reports revenue and earnings below expectations and bad guidance for next quarter, the stock could easily fall 30%. If they report a strong current quarter and bad earnings guidance for next quarter, as Roku did, the fall could be less than half that. So there’s a strong incentive to give low guidance when this quarter’s numbers are good—and to do that frequently so that expectations won’t overheat over the long haul.
Another thing that often impacts a stock is the earnings call. If you aren’t familiar with Elon Musk’s bizarre meltdown earlier this year on an earnings call, read up on it. Beyond the sheer strangeness of his attacks on conventional and rather good questions (and the weirdness behind him taking questions from a YouTuber), the concern here is pretty clear: a possibly mentally unstable and unreliable CEO will not be able to move the company towards profitability without a lot of volatility in the meanwhile. That drove the selloff after the call, although the stock quickly recovered (and is up about 40% since then).
Not all earnings call disasters (or successes) are so clear cut. There have been many occasions of very subtle clues in earnings calls resulting in a major stock move; what’s key is to know enough about the company and the industry to ensure that you pick up on those clues and act accordingly. And that points to the worst thing you can do with earnings calls, which is to focus on the headline numbers and not know enough about the company to see what everyone else is focused on.