When companies report earnings, analysts will often focus on how profit expectations were met, rather than what those numbers are. For example, even if a company beats earnings expectations, if revenues came in lower than expected, this is often viewed as a bearish sign. Similarly, earnings misses accompanied by higher revenues are often considered positive. However, this line of thinking sorely underestimates the value of a flexible cost structure.
After all, if profit expectations were beaten while revenue came in lower than expected, this means that costs were likely much lower than expected. A company that can control its costs is a company that can outlast its competitors when revenues unexpectedly fall, as they often do in recessions.
Furthermore, higher revenues and in-line earnings suggest that margins have degraded. This could be a sign that the company has had to offer incentives to customers in order to move products. Instead, investors should look for companies that have the ability to reduce or increase costs depending on revenues. This leads to higher predictability and therefore higher accuracy in determining whether a margin of safety exists.
As an example, consider Goodfellow (GDL), a stock we used to discuss on this site as a potential value investment (but has since graduated to the Value In Action page). Back when we favoured it as an investment last year at this time, revenues had dipped by about 15% from year-ago levels. Yet the company showed profits of 24 cents per share versus 20 cents one year ago. How did it do this? By paying down debt (and therefore reducing interest costs) and by slashing operating expenses: gross margin actually increased which is very rare when revenues decline, as fixed costs are spread out across fewer sold units.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that revenues are more difficult (for managements) to manipulate than costs. However, manipulating revenues is far from unheard of, and as long as the assumptions used to calculate costs are reasonable, the arguments in this article still hold.
For a discussion on various points to consider when analyzing a company's cost structure, see here.