If you’ve never listened in on a company’s earnings call — and let’s be honest, why would you — the experience is a little drab. It’s mostly executives reading dry corporate statements in monotone voices.
“It is sometimes very, uh, I don’t want to say boring, but I think these are standardized seeming conversations,” said Karen Woody, a law professor at Washington and Lee University.
Every quarter, public companies have to file reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and after that, they hold these earnings calls for investors and analysts. The calls are not required, but they’ve become common practice in the last couple of decades.
They’ve also become a common way to not just figure out where a company is headed, but where the economy may be headed. Analysts are listening to what executives say about rising costs, labor decisions and sales numbers.
But to get the answers, you have to sit through the calls, which are boring by design. Every word executives read is vetted.
“These things do have with them the risk that it is a statement made on behalf of the company,” said Woody. “And so you have to parse your words fairly carefully.”
The SEC weights every word said on these calls. So if a company misleads investors, on purpose or by accident, it can be held accountable, which is why the language used can feel so tired.
“I would suggest that overused phrases like headwinds and tailwinds are a bit cliché,” said Donatella Giacometti, president of CEO Media Coach, a company that trains C-suite executives at brands like Toyota, Pepsi and GE.
It’s her job to take out some of the jargon and bring out a little personality from executives.
“Wall Street, investors, and analysts are assessing the competency of management. It’s a little bit like you know intangible assets on the balance sheet that we may not exactly be able to [put a number to],” she said.
Except you kind of can, in stock price. Studies show the language managers use can affect share value. This is especially true when executives get to the Q&A section of a call, where there are no prepared statements. Analysts pay close attention to word choices and vocal variations when the news sounds bad and even when it sounds good.
“So if you see the extreme positivity on the call maybe you should question how genuine this positivity is,” said Anastasia Zakolyukina, an accounting professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
It’s why the tone of these calls sits squarely in the mundane. But every once in a while someone goes rogue. Elon Musk did this during an infamous earnings call in 2018 when he cut off an analyst, calling his question “bonehead.”
Tesla’s stock price tanked after the call. Because it made analysts pause and ask: Is Musk just a man with a lot of personality or is he evading a question he doesn’t have a good answer for?
“Investors are reading into those cues,” said Zakolyukina.
Earnings calls should never be memorable. You communicate your wins, you explain your losses and you get out.
There’s a lot happening in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is here for you.
You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible.
Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.