Sometimes you just grade 'em like a big class taking their final exam. That's how I felt about Tuesday's parade of earnings. You start off with DuPont (DD), and you have to be encouraged simply that this company performed much better than it did last time. It was like the dog stopped eating CEO Ellen Kullman's homework and she delivered a respectable quarter. There no high-fives during the exam, and you could tell she was still furious at herself from last quarter's miserable effort. Still, when a "D" student gets a "C," it is a big deal in the school of hard earnings. In short, Kullman has moved out of the cellar with that quarter.
Meanwhile, across the hall, Travelers' (TRV) Jay Fishman -- the best insurance executive in the world -- quietly delivers a summa cum laude on the quarter through a combination of higher rates, thoughtful underwriting. He made you feel as if he had predicted Hurricane Sandy (I am not kidding -- go have a listen) and tremendous investing of your premiums. Makes you want to switch away from Geico's talking pig, Progressive's (PGR) woman in white, State Farm's discount Cheesehead check and Allstate's (ALL) President Palmer all in one conference call.
Remarkable. I found myself thinking, holy cow, am I glad I am not in that class. I would have had to do a lot of explaining to my dad about how I couldn't keep up with Jay Fishman, and he would make me watch less television and hang out less with my hoodlum friends.
Then there's IBM (IBM) after the close. Oh, we are so darned fixated with the top line. However, IBM knows you can get terrific grades not by just showing up, which is what sales can really be about -- but by saying "no" to bad sales and "yes" to good sales, the ones that make you the most of money. IBM made as much money as it did not because of the oft-charged alchemy of big share buybacks, but also because it makes a huge amount of profit on each sale.
What a remarkable quarter -- pure dean's list, and a nice surprise. It makes me feel that perhaps IBM just didn't feel well in that last quarterly exam, and should have gotten a note to the testing agency from its mother that it was under the weather.
Now how about this Google (GOOG)? Here's a company that sent shareholders down a 100-point chute with a shocking, amateurish and stunning midday release of a quarter that wasn't due until after the close. It was like a defenseless hit to the blind side, and there were all sorts of red flags thrown and a suspension from the stock commissioner.
This quarter was a redemption song and a complete reinstatement of Google's greatness, with terrific growth and new products that are stealing the limelight from just about everyone. Plus, there was no defensiveness, just unbridled optimism. I felt like doing an end-zone dance at its conclusion, but then they'd throw a flag for excessive celebration.
How could you not feel terrific, though, when they discuss how people now "carry a supercomputer in their pocket all the time?" Google is treating this era like the birth of the personal computer -- arming that supercomputer with everything you need, from car self-parking to the cheapest and best airline and restaurant reservations.
Plus, just in case you had worries about whether these joyous rocket scientists didn't care enough about their financial grades, they sprung this classic line on you after discussing the questionable Motorola acquisition: "Just to remind everybody, we do care about profitability." Take that, you nitpicking teachers. They've got some Ray Lewis in 'em for certain.
All in all, it was a terrific day to take the earnings exam. The worst got better, the feckless were going straight and narrow -- and the nerd insurance guy was just killing it, as the nerds always do.