3 Things You Must Do for Earnings Season

The three suggestions I'm about to offer you are just that: suggestions. However, if you decide to ignore them, when earnings season kicks you in the sternum with its steel-toed boot and you're gasping for air, I'd prefer that you conveniently misplace my email address.

OK, I'm kidding... sort of. The truth is that once earnings season starts, it has a tendency to come on like an F5 tornado and overwhelm investors with the sheer magnitude of the daily action. If you're not prepared, you may end up hopping on one of the following ill-advised strategies:

  • Watching one of your stocks plummet 10% in a day after a poor report and then freaking out and selling your entire portfolio.

  • Getting a nice 10% pop from a stock that had a great earnings report and then fancying yourself a stock-picking genius and trying to front-run other earnings reports using your fail-proof strategy of... blind luck.

  • Getting so overloaded with everything going on that you throw your computer through a window, hop a flight to Cabo, and spend the next week sipping fruity drinks and reading Us Weekly.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for a trip to the beach and I love a fruity drink as much as the next person, but there's no need to let the market chase you out of the country -- or cause you to smash up a perfectly good computer.

So let's take a look at how you can dial down the stress during the first-quarter reporting surge.

1. Know yourself
As earnings season ramps up, the major market indexes -- the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI) , the S&P 500, etc. -- will start to swing based on investors' perceptions of the early reports that hit the wires. For some investors it's no problem at all to watch the broad market shake and twitch as investors try to use a few early earnings reports to read the tea leaves for the rest of the season -- and, by extension, the health of corporate America as a whole. For other investors, the emotional toll of the daily swings and the flood of earnings data can just be too much to handle.

Hopefully this isn't the first time you've honestly appraised your emotional stamina as an investor, but now is a great time to do it for the first time or revisit and review. If you know that you're the type of person who gets frazzled by wild markets, then make a plan now to make it easier on yourself. Instead of gluing yourself to the daily ticker feed, force yourself to tune out the market during the week and take some time over the weekend -- when the markets are closed -- to read some analysis and soberly evaluate the important happenings. Or, heck, wait until earnings season is done entirely before you take a look back and figure out what went down.

Unchecked emotions can be one of the most damaging things for your portfolio, so if you do nothing else that I mention here, at least do this.

2. Know the big picture
Let's face it, Mr. Market's focus during earnings season is idiotic. The entire stretch is one huge farce where companies are expected to top the to-the-penny estimates of Wall Street analysts -- analysts who, mind you, haven't exactly shown a long-term ability to predict a whole lot that's of great use. And yet despite that, if a company is short of analysts' estimates by a single penny -- literally! -- its stock craters.

Your challenge, then, is to know what the big picture is for the companies that you've invested in, so that whether the earnings tally manages to beat or miss expectations by a few cents, you can get some informed takeaways from their earnings reports.

Take specialty glass maker Corning (NYS: GLW) , for example. The company's fourth-quarter report was none too pleasing as profits fell 39% from the previous quarter and more than 50% from the prior year. As investors look ahead to the company's first-quarter report, though, the key question shouldn't simply be whether EPS measures up to the $0.28 average estimate, but whether there are signs that Corning's offerings are -- as a few of my fellow Fools have argued -- showing strength in the marketplace as differentiated products put the company in a premium position versus its competitors.

3. Know when something's truly gone wrong
A big part of Foolish investing is "buy and hold" investing. But please, please, please don't read that as "buy and do nothing else ever," "buy and play ostrich," or "buy and be ill informed." Buy and hold simply means that if you own a great company that treats shareholders right and doesn't have a stock that's wildly overvalued, then you should let it keep right on helping your portfolio shine.

Groupon (NAS: GRPN) has recently been making headlines -- again -- over an accounting snafu. Some investors want to shake this off as excusable growing pains from a sprouting tech highflier, but other investors -- yours truly included -- don't take these kinds of missteps lightly. Diamond Foods (NAS: DMND) , meanwhile, was dragged through the mud earlier this year thanks to a true-blue accounting scandal that resulted in the booting of the company's CEO and the loss of what would have been a landmark deal to buy Pringles from Procter & Gamble (NYS: PG) .

These are two examples of companies I'd cut from my own portfolio -- with extreme prejudice. Although I like to own my investments for long periods of time, I'm not a fan of playing storage center for equity-market toxic waste.

During earnings season, companies won't put investment-thesis-altering bad news in the headlines of their press releases, so you'd better be ready to do some reading when your companies report. But even so, you need to know where you draw the line and what earnings season revelations would provide reason for you to go from "buy and hold" to "buy and buh-bye."

At the time thisarticle was published The Motley Fool owns shares of Corning. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Corning and Procter & Gamble. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer does not have a financial interest in any of the companies mentioned. You can check out what Matt is keeping an eye on by visiting his CAPS portfolio, or you can follow Matt on Twitter @KoppTheFool or Facebook. The Fool's disclosure policy prefers dividends over a sharp stick in the eye.

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