Earnings season has arrived, and we've already heard from the big guns like Apple and Yahoo! The numbers were encouraging. Some of the best earnings stories, however, are being told by the companies further down the size scale. Here's a look at the earnings results you may have missed, but shouldn't have. (Wall Street analysts' consensus earnings estimates are used by the market to judge stock performance. To learn more, check out Earnings Forecasts: A Primer.)

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Tempur Pedic International

The fact that Tempur Pedic International Inc. (NYSE:TPX) upped its Q4 operating earnings from 17 cents per share a year ago to 38 cents per share this past quarter is compelling, but that's not the exciting part. While most companies have been drastically slashing costs in order to do more with less revenue, Tempur Pedic did it the old-fashioned way - by increasing the top line through enhanced business operations. Revenue was up 29% last quarter, though down 10% for the year.

In other words, Tempur Pedic turned the corner within the last few months. That fact shouldn't be taken lightly either. Mattress and furniture demand fell sharply as the recession took hold, but these numbers suggest consumers are back to spending on bigger-ticket items, an arena that's among the toughest to revive in the shadow of a recession.

The McGraw-Hill Companies
The top line increase for The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. (NYSE:MHP) in the fourth quarter was a mediocre 3.0%; the 44% improvement in 2009 earnings per share is a little more enticing.

While the rating business (via S&P) as well as the textbook business both perked up in 2009, McGraw also added "You will undoubtedly see a McGraw-Hill e-book for the college market running on an Apple tablet." Though Apple Inc. (Nasdaq:AAPL) only launched the iPad a few days ago, the opportunity wheels are already spinning for McGraw Hill.

The higher-education textbook market is worth nearly $10 billion per year. While anybody can theoretically enter the market, few have a foothold like McGraw Hill. And, though the introduction of e-books as textbooks wouldn't increase the size of the market, it could increase the size of margins for McGraw-Hill as e-delivery is much cheaper than printing.

It's still more theory than reality, but McGraw Hill is one of the first college textbook publishers to make such a clear statement about the potential future of e-readers in college classrooms.

Gilead Sciences Inc.
Gilead Sciences Inc.
(NYSE:GILD) knocked one out of the park last quarter with a 43% improvement in earnings. And like Tempur Pedic, Gilead did in the old-fashioned way. Revenue actually grew by 42% for the quarter, thanks to a 50% increase in sales of Atripla.

The company's HIV portfolio is starting to get serious sales traction; Q4's results are just a glimmer of its potential upside to shareholders.

And One Mixed Message
It was an ugly success, but a success all the same. Homebulider Meritage Homes Corp (NYSE:MTH) managed to turn a profit last quarter of $1.35 per share. However, a large amount of the gain was the result of a tax benefit. With or without the tax-related boost in earnings though, it was still better than the $2.58 per-share loss from a year earlier.

On the other hand, new home sales fell by 7.6% last month, possibly indicating further hardships in upcoming quarters. Point being, the real estate piece of the recession still isn't quite done with getting worse. (Owning property isn't always easy, but there are plenty of perks. Find out how to buy in Simple Ways To Invest In Real Estate.)

The Bottom Line
Though the net results from last quarter's reports have thus far felt positive, don't be fooled - there were more than a few major disappointments. We're seeing a divergence among the winners and losers. Though it's driving the market lower right now, in the bigger picture it's actually a good thing.

More importantly, it highlights the five earnings victories above, and suggests these five names are standouts as long as they can maintain the current pace and capitalize in their opportunities. Keep an eye on each, if they're not presently in your portfolio.

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