What Is Earnings Season?

Earnings Season Explained

A businessman reads an earnings report at his desk.
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Earnings season is the window of time in which corporations release their earnings reports to the public. There are four earnings seasons per year that align with each quarter of the year. 

Why does earnings season matter? As an investor, the reports released during earnings season may help you gauge a company's past performance—and where it might be headed in the future. If you have stocks in your portfolio, it helps to know what to expect when earnings season rolls around. 

Definition and Example of Earnings Season

Earnings season marks the period when corporations release their quarterly earnings reports to the public. Earnings season happens four times a year, typically kicking off in the first one or two weeks that follow the end of the previous quarter.

An earnings season calendar might look like this:

  • First-quarter earnings season: April
  • Second-quarter earnings season: July
  • Third-quarter earnings season: October
  • Fourth-quarter earnings season: January

An earnings season generally lasts about six weeks. Historically, the unofficial starting point of an earnings season revolved around the release of earnings reports by aluminum producer Alcoa (AA). After splitting into two companies, it's no longer the first to report earnings each year.

Multiple corporations generally release reports on the same day. For example, earnings reports for UnitedHealth Group (ticker: UNH), Bank of America (BAC), Wells Fargo (WFC), Domino's Pizza (DZP), Citigroup (C) and Alcoa (AA) were all expected to be released on Oct. 14, 2021, to mark the beginning of the October earnings season.

Companies that have a fiscal calendar that doesn't follow the traditional calendar year may release their earnings reports closer to the end of earnings season, or on a slightly different schedule.

How Earnings Season Works

During earnings season, corporations release earnings information to the public. This may begin with a press release that provides a general overview of the company's sales and earnings for the most recent quarter. Corporations can also use the press release to offer a forecast of where they believe the company may be headed next. 

Companies that release press releases of this nature during earnings season are required to file Form 8-K with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). This form, known as a "current report" must include the text from the press release. The SEC requires these forms to be filed four business days before the press release is issued.

The company can also schedule an earnings call. An earnings call is a conference call led by company management in which information about the company's finances is shared. This call is open to analysts, institutional investors, and shareholders. Earnings calls allow companies to meet Fair Disclosure, Regulation FD guidelines, which are meant to ensure that smaller investors have access to the same information about companies as larger ones. 

Along with a Form 8-K, companies are also required to file a Form 10-Q for the first three quarters of the fiscal year. This form includes more detailed information about the company's finances, including factors that may have impacted its performance for the previous quarter. At the end of the fourth quarter, companies must file a Form 10-K, which is an annual report.

Here's an example of how earnings season works at a glance. Bank of America issued a press release on Oct. 7, 2021, announcing the upcoming release of its third-quarter earnings report. On Oct. 14, 2021, the report was released. 

That same day, an earnings call was held in which the company's CEO and CFO discussed financial results for the third quarter. Investors had the option to dial in to a listen-only version of the call or view presentation slides with accompanying live audio. Following the call, the company published a copy of the earnings release and its Form 10-Q, along with a copy of the earnings call webcast and a transcript of the presentation, to its investor relations website.

You can find a company's Form 8-K, Form 10-Q, and Form 10-K filings on the SEC's EDGAR database.

What It Means for Individual Investors

Earnings season offers you as an investor an opportunity to take a closer look at a company's financials and performance for the previous quarter. That can be helpful if you already own stock in a particular company or are considering buying shares for the first time. It's important, however, to consider what a quarterly earnings report means in terms of the company's performance as a whole.

A company can have one strong quarter, but that alone may not be enough to base an investment decision on. If you’re a buy-and-hold investor, for instance, you may be more interested in what the company has the potential to do long-term. In that case, you may look at earnings season as a chance to see how the company's earnings are trending over time. 

Financial ratios, such as price-to-earnings (P/E) and earnings per share (EPS), may offer you a better understanding of a company's fundamentals.

Be sure to consider how the stock market as a whole views a particular company. Stock analysts can make estimates about what a company's earnings report is expected to show. If earnings beat the estimate, that could push a stock's price up if it's attracting more interest from investors. On the other hand, if earnings fall short of expectations, that could cause the stock's price to drop if investors lose confidence in the company's prospects. 

Looking at the earnings report, along with Form 10-Q and Form 10-K, may paint a clearer picture of what's going on with the company and its stock. It can also be helpful to consider which way the market as a whole is trending (is it bearish or bullish?), and how that could be influencing stock prices. 

Key Takeaways

  • Earnings season is the period in which corporations release their quarterly earnings reports.
  • Earnings season typically begins in the early to middle part of the month following the end of the previous quarter and lasts approximately six weeks. 
  • During earnings season, investors have an opportunity to take a closer look at a company's earnings and performance. 
  • Earnings season can be a volatile time for investors, as stock prices may fluctuate with the release of each new earnings report.