Kicking the Guidance Habit

Frustrated, CFOs who still provide EPS forecasts eagerly await the tipping point that will spell the death of quarterly guidance.

When it became fashionable for CFOs to provide investors with quarterly earnings guidance in the mid-1990s, they may not have realized that the practice would become habit forming. By the time finance chiefs grew weary of coming up with predictions every three months—and explaining why their companies missed previous forecasts—investors and analysts had come to expect the report. As a result, it hasn’t been easy for companies to wean Wall Street and shareholders off of earnings-per-share forecasts.

Still, many CFOs did quit the quarterly grind, including those at Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Pfizer, who announced the change earlier this decade. But for every story of a company foregoing quarterly guidance, there has been another company fearing that stopping the practice would sound alarm bells for investors and result in a tumbling stock price. “You’re stuck in a Catch-22,” says Jules Fisher, CFO of medical device maker Possis Medical, who continues to issue the guidance. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

Since Regulation Fair Disclosure (Reg FD) took effect in 2000, finance executives have had to be more careful about how they share material information publicly. To be sure, Reg FD requires widespread dissemination of material nonpublic information. That kind of regulatory pressure, combined with a desire to focus more on long-term strategy, has turned many CFOs against giving quarterly earnings guidance.

In fact, more than 60 percent of the 73 CFOs polled in a recent Financial Executives International survey said that they believe public companies should stop providing quarterly earnings guidance. Instead, that group favors providing a range of EPS predictions once a year.

The FEI survey was prompted by a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce report that called for all U.S. public companies to stop giving quarterly forecasts. The Chamber hopes to incite “a stampede” of companies that will cease to issue EPS guidance, so the stoppage becomes widely acceptable, says David Hirschmann, a Chamber senior vice president. “Quarterly earnings guidance has outlived its usefulness.”

Companies began privately sharing their earnings forecasts with large investors in the 1970s. By 1995, when Congress passed the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, which protects companies from liability when stating projected performance, the practice of issuing public, quarterly guidance became more common. Before the surge abated earlier this decade, more than one-quarter of the 4,000 companies that generate at least $500 million in revenues annually provided earnings guidance at least once, noted a McKinsey & Co. study. Today, at least half of all public companies continue to issue quarterly earnings guidance, according to the National Investor Relations Institute’s (NIRI) most recent research on the subject.

While CFOs haven’t been shy about privately telling select business and research groups that they’d like to ditch the practice, they have been more skittish about telling shareholders and analysts that they’d like to make a change. Furthermore, finance chiefs who still issue quarterly guidance say that they are unlikely to stop.

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