These 3 Market Giants Get a Thumbs-Up Ahead of Earnings

Once again, we’re heading into earnings season. All publicly traded companies are required by law to disclose their revenues, earnings, and other financial data quarterly, and the reports generally start coming in a few weeks after each calendar quarter ends. And now it’s time for the Q4 2019 reports to start coming in.

Earnings season always generates a spate of analyst predictions, and this time is no different. Looking back, market watchers note that 2019 saw a series of lackluster quarters – that nevertheless did not impede stock performance. Companies compensated by reducing their forward guidance and then clearing that lower bar.

So far, it seems that this is likely to happen once again. Bank of America’s securities strategists wrote, “We expect to see a 2% beat in 4Q earnings. Estimates have reset sufficiently, in our view.” At the same time, analysts are expecting stock prices to continue rising, with any pullback likely to be both shallow and short-lived.

Ahead of the earnings releases, three market giants have received recent upgrades or price-target hikes from top analysts. Rating upgrades are important, as they indicate a positive change in the likely direction a stock will take – and their timing is important, too, as an upgrade shortly before an earnings release will push investor expectations.

Using TipRanks’ Stock Comparison tool, we lined up the three alongside each other to give us an idea of what the Street thinks is in store for the trio in the year ahead.

American Electric Power (AEP)

American Electric Power is one of the largest electricity providers in the country, with over 5 million customers in 11 states, some 26,000 megawatts of generating capacity, and a market cap of $47 billion. AEP is scheduled to release fourth-quarter earnings on February 20.

Ahead of the print, the company is expected to show EPS of 62 cents, down 10 cents from Q4 2018. In the last three quarters, AEP has beaten the forecasts by an average of 6.7%. For the full year 2019, EPS is estimated at $4.18. In Q3 2019, the last reported, AEP showed strong results. The Q3 EPS, $1.46, was far ahead of the $1.33 predicted.

Like many utilities, AEP pays out a dividend to shareholders. The 70-cent quarterly payment annualizes to $2.80, with a yield of 2.9%. This beats the average S&P yield by a wide margin, and makes the stock more attractive despite a relatively low upside potential (more below). Better for investors, the company has a history of steadily increasing the dividend, and at 48%, the payout ratio indicates both sustainability and room for further dividend growth.

A reliable business base and solid earnings gave Shelby Tucker, 4-star analyst with RBC Capital, reason to upgrade his rating and price target on AEP. In his comments on the stock, Tucker pointed out the “robust rate base and earnings growth,” and noted, “We view AEP as having best value in the same peer group of quality utilities and see it trading at an improved multiple.”

Tucker moved his rating up to Buy, and increased his price to $103 (from $96). His new target suggests a modest, but likely reliable, upside of 5% for the stock. (To watch Tucker’s track record, click here)

All in all, American Electric has a Moderate Buy rating from the analyst consensus. This is based on 9 recent stock reviews, including 5 Buys, 3 Holds, and 1 Sell. Tucker’s upgraded Buy is the most recent of those ratings. Shares have an average price target of $97.25; this implies a minimal downside from the $98.55 trading price. (See American Electric stock analysis at TipRanks)

Apple, Inc. (AAPL)

Apple needs no introduction. Tim Cook’s baby is a giant in every sense of the word. It is the world’s largest publicly traded company, and in summer of 2018 was the first company to every exceed a $1 trillion market cap. Apple is currently valued at $1.37 trillion. The company has a reliable – and loyal – customer base over 900 million strong, and saw over $265 billion in revenue in 2018.

2019 was challenging for Apple. A series of headwinds – the US-China trade tensions, maturation of the smartphone replacement cycle, slowing iPhone sales – combined to push earnings down and forced management to seek alternate strategies to maintain revenue growth. During the year, Apple shifted toward an emphasis on its Services and Wearables segments, along with revamping the Mac and iPad lines, to compensate for the decline in iPhone sales, and that strategy is bearing fruit. Outside factors – the switch to 5G, with its concomitant necessity for customers to upgrade devices, and the apparent success of President Trump’s tariff strategy in forcing China into trade negotiations – are also looking better for Apple as 2020 opens.

Q3 2019 showed that Apple’s new strategy is working. While iPhone sales were lower than expected, 18% growth in Services and 54% growth in Wearables powered an overall gain in total revenue, to $64 billion. The $3.03 EPS was 6.7% above the forecast.

Looking ahead to Q4, analysts are sanguine. The final quarter is normally Apple’s strongest, and EPS is expected at $4.53. Since the December 2018 quarter, Apple has beaten earnings forecasts by increasing margins in each report.

Canaccord analyst Michael Walkley sees plenty of reason for optimism as Apple gears up for its January 28 earnings release. He points out Apple’s market leading Wearables position, with strong growth in the Air Pods and Watch, and says as well, “We believe Apple’s ecosystem approach, including an installed base that exceeds 1.4B devices globally, is leading to record services revenue, and we expect the higher margin services revenue growth to continue outpacing total company growth. We are also encouraged by the strong demand for the iPhone 11 lineup and believe Apple will maintain its market share leadership of premium-tier smartphones that could be bolstered by a 5G upgrade cycle.”

Walkley upgraded Apple to a Buy, and set his price target at $355, implying an upside of 11%. (To watch Walkley’s track record, click here)

Overall, Apple’s 34 analyst ratings add up to a consensus view of Moderate Buy. The breakdown is 20 Buys, 11 holds, and 3 Sells. Apple’s rapid share appreciation in the past month has pushed the stock price above the average target, and the analysts have yet to adjust. Shares are selling for $318.73, while the average target is still at $296. (See Apple’s stock analysis at TipRanks)

Qualcomm, Inc. (QCOM)

It makes sense to talk about Qualcomm along with Apple. The chipmaker is Apple’s main supplier of smartphone modem chips, a factor that will be integral to both companies’ positioning in the global switch to 5G networks. In addition, Qualcomm and Apple ended a long-running legal battle last year with an agreed settlement that saw Qualcomm on the receiving end of a large – and undisclosed – lump sum.

2019 was volatile for Qualcomm, as it was for much of the chip industry, but the company’s settlement with Apple and subsequent agreement to once again displace Intel as Apple’s prime modem chip supplier, gave the company a boost. QCOM shares ended the year with an impressive annual gain of 59%.

In 2H19, QCOM saw gains when it beat earnings estimates in calendar Q3. Despite year-over-year drops, both the top and bottom lines exceeded forecasts. At the bottom line, the 78-cent EPS was well ahead of the Street’s 71-cent forecast, while the top-line $4.81 billion in revenues beat expectations by 2.3%. For calendar Q4 2019, QCOM is again expected to show a 71-cent EPS when the company reports on February 5.

Canaccord’s Walkley, quoted above, looked at QCOM shares, too, and had this to say: “Given … 75 plus 5G licenses, we believe Qualcomm has a strong chance to maintain its current licensing business and is well positioned to benefit with 5G network builds ramping around the world. Further, we believe the recent Apple settlement and Samsung and LGE renegotiations protect a strong portion of Qualcomm’s long-term licensing business model.”

In line with his optimism, Walkley reiterated his Buy rating on the stock and increased his price target to $115. His new price target suggests an upside potential of 20%. (To watch Walkley’s track record, click here)

Qualcomm’s Moderate Buy consensus rating is based on 18 analyst reviews, including 12 Buys and 6 Holds. With shares trading for $95.91, the $99.41 average price target implies a modest upside of 4%. (See Qualcomm stock analysis at TipRanks)


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