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Tickers in this Article: RHI, CSH, AXP, SLB, BNI, NSC, UNP
Several weeks ago I wrote about five companies that were reporting earnings which could be used to indicate economic trends. Now that all five have reported, it might be constructive to see if there is any practical information to be taken from either the earnings or management commentary.

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Temp Losses
Robert Half International Inc.
(NYSE:RHI) earned only six cents per share in the first quarter of 2009. Revenues in temporary staffing, the company's largest segment, were down 30%.

Investors who were looking for a silver lining in this report went home empty handed, as management said that its temporary and consulting businesses were down 34% for the first two weeks of April, and the permanent placement segment was down 69%.

Pawn Gains
Cash America International (NYSE:CSH) benefited from the American consumer's weakened balance sheet, as its revenue from pawn loans shot up 22% in the quarter. The company was concerned about higher loss rates in its cash advance business, but it was not that much of an issue in the quarter. (Learn about the components of the statement of financial position and how they relate to each other Reading The Balance Sheet.)

If one was using Cash America as a contrarian indicator of the economy, meaning the company would do less business as the economy strengthened, they will have to look somewhere else.

Confirming Suspicions
American Express (NYSE:AXP) is a snapshot of consumer lending trends in the economy. Although the company was profitable in the quarter, consumers charged less, leaving the company with lower balances. The company might have given investors a little hope, with this line from its press release: "while we did see some recent improvement in early delinquency rates, overall credit indicators reflected rising unemployment levels and the broad-scale weakness in the economy." American Express also said that it expected write-off rates to level off by the fourth quarter of 2009.

Schlumberger (NYSE:SLB) confirmed what other oil service companies have been saying about the energy cycle – North American drilling activity is still declining and there is no solid evidence of a bottom. Andrew Gould, the CEO of Schlumberger, moved the timeline for North American recovery to 2010 at the earliest.

Norfolk Southern
(NYSE:NSC), Union Pacific (NYSE:UNP) and Burlington Northern (NYSE:BNI) reported profitable quarters, with large drops in fuel costs year over year. However, in some cases these expense savings did not offset the reduction in fuel surcharges that the railroads were able to charge customers in previous quarters. Freight and traffic volume also fell for all three railroads.

Concurrent with the earnings release of these three railroads, the Association of American Railroads reported that shipments fell 24.3% in the week ending April 18, 2009, compared to one year ago.

The Bottom Line
There was no evidence of any economic recovery in the earnings reports and management commentary of several companies that are well-positioned with a view of the economic trends in the U.S. It seems that American Express was the only one brave enough to offer a prediction about the economic cycle, albeit a fairly weak one. Investors who were looking for indications that the recession is near its end will have to look at other companies for further data. (Find out how this tough economic period can be a learning experience for all, see The Bright Side Of The Credit Crisis.)

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