3 Earnings Surprises That Caught My Attention Last Week

We're more than a month into the new year, and surprisingly the majority of earnings reports continue to be better than Wall Street had predicted. With so many companies reporting during the several weeks that comprise earnings season each quarter, earnings reports can fall through the cracks.

For the past month, I've taken a look at a dozen companies that could be worth further research after either beating or missing their profit expectations. Today, we're going to take a look at three more companies that reported earnings last week and may have slid under your radar, and that you should give a second look:

Company

Consensus EPS

Reported EPS

Surprise

Clorox (NYS: CLX) $0.68 $0.79 16%
Zoltek (NAS: ZOLT) $0.05 $0.28 460%
Patriot Coal (NYS: PCX) ($0.28) ($0.59) (111%)

Source: Yahoo! Finance.

Clorox
Welcome back, Clorox! The maker of Clorox bleach, Glad trash bags, and various other household items crushed Wall Street's expectations in the second quarter thanks to a 4% rise in sales. The consumer continues to be a tricky part of Clorox's growth equation because people simply aren't spending like they were before the recession. In fact, Clorox's gross margin actually fell during the quarter because of rising raw material costs.

Still, the report reaffirms the basic notion that necessities manufacturers are always ripe for a rebound. Clorox is the type of stock you can set in your portfolio and forget about for a decade -- all while collecting a 3.4% dividend yield that has grown annually at almost 16% over the past five years. Not to mention that Clorox raised its revenue growth forecast to 2%-4%, from its previous guidance of 1%-3%. Needless to say, I'm giving this one a "clean" bill of health.

Zoltek
Zoltek, a manufacturer of carbon fibers and technical fibers used in the production of wind turbines, blew away estimates (pun fully intended). Zoltek grew its gross margin 1,240 basis points over the prior quarter and CEO Zsolt Rumy expects the momentum to continue for years to come.

I applaud the results, but I'm not sold on Zoltek as of yet. For one, green energy is a fickle environment. A good portion of Zoltek's revenue is tied to the health of European markets and I'm not too optimistic that many EU nations will be spending heavily on wind energy with austerity measures about to go into effect. Secondly, prior to its first-quarter results, 19% of Zoltek's shares were held by short-sellers. I'm inclined to think Friday's rally was more induced by short-covering than inspired by results. Finally, Zoltek's long-term growth targets of 15%-25% just don't seem reasonable given its recent erratic history of growth. I'd pass on Zoltek.

Patriot Coal
Cheap natural gas is claiming another victim -- the coal sector. With utilities opting for natural gas to generate electricity, as opposed to coal, and a milder-than-expected winter, Patriot Coal reported a loss more than double what Wall Street had been expecting. In addition, Patriot also laid out plans to idle one of its mines until pricing and demand improves; effectively reducing its total output by 7%-13%.

Patriot's miss didn't really come as a surprise to me as it's a stock I've recommending avoiding before. Instead, I've favored Arch Coal (NYS: ACI) and Alliance Resource Partners (NAS: ARLP) in the coal sector. Alliance has raised its dividend in 15 straight quarters and posted 11 years of record earnings. Arch, on the other hand, has been profitable every year since 2003 and is valued at just seven times forward earnings. With values like these, there's really no reason to even be giving a company like Patriot Coal the time of day.

Foolish roundup
Sometimes an earnings beat or miss isn't as cut-and-dried as it appears. I've given my two cents on what's next for each of these companies; now it's your turn to sound off. Share your thoughts in the comments section below, and consider adding these stocks to your free and personalized watchlist.

If you'd like the inside track on three more companies that could wind up in the earnings beat column, then I suggest you get a copy of our latest special report, "3 American Companies Set to Dominate the World." Did I mention the best part?: This report is completely free, so don't miss out!

At the time this article was published Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong. The Motley Fool owns shares of Clorox. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Alliance Resource Partners. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy that won't leave a lump of coal in your stocking on Christmas.

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