What is a Whisper Number?

A whisper number refers to the purported, unofficial, and unpublished earnings per share (EPS) forecasts of professional traders and fund managers on Wall Street. The whisper number can also be applied to any news or data release in any market

A whisper number can also refer to the expected future earnings or revenues according to a herd of individual investors. In this sense, a whisper number could be compiled by a website polling its visitors. Essentially, the whisper number is the unofficial consensus of what earnings and revenue for a company will be at the next announcement.

Key Takeaways

  • The whisper number is the unofficial expectation of what a news release will be.
  • This sometimes differs from the officially published analyst forecasts.
  • Market prices often react relative to the whisper number, since the whisper is what traders believe and have acted on, or will act on.

Understanding the Whisper Number

Earnings forecasts are based on analyst expectations. Analyst's generally group their forecasts around one another, this way they aren't singled out if they make a predication that is way off the mark. While consensus estimates can be accurate, the whisper number is what analysts, traders, and fund managers are thinking, but the analyst dare not publish it in case it singles them out and they turn out to be wrong. Staying with the pack is smart in terms of keeping one's career as an analyst. Straying from the pack and making too many erroneous calls could result in being fired.

Whisper numbers may be useful when they differ from analysts's consensus forecast. They can be used as a tool to help spot (or avoid) an earnings surprise (or disappointment). Of course, this is only relevant if they are more accurate than the consensus estimate. Until the actual announcement no ones knows if the whisper number or the consensus forecast is more accrue.

Whisper numbers can be wrong. If the whisper number is much higher than the consensus estimate, people may buy a stock ahead of the earnings release. If actual earnings are less than the whisper number the stock may sell off, even if the earnings beat the consensus (but below the whisper number). If the company release earnings higher than the whisper number, the stock will likely rise, regardless of what the consensus is. In other words, stock prices typically react to earnings relative to the whisper number, as the whisper number is what traders believe and are therefore likely acting on.

Myths And Questions Raised About Whisper Numbers

Individual investors have access to a wealth of information (and misinformation) relative to the investors of history. In the old days, the whisper number was the best information provided by brokers to their richest clients. The brokers would whisper to these clients what the firm's analyst really thought or knew, but wouldn't publish publicly.

Increased regulatory scrutiny on the brokerage industry made it much more difficult to get a whisper number in this traditional sense. For example, regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley provided for stricter rules on how companies disclose financial data. Employees, financial professionals, and brokerages face significant penalties if they provide insider earnings data to a select group of people.

There has been some doubt raised about whether whisper numbers were actually shared by brokers with their high-net-worth clientele. Some brokers have sought to debunk the entire concept as a myth.

Whisper numbers, based on individual opinions and assessments rather than broker input, are now marketed by a variety of websites. Traders can even get an idea of the whisper based on the chatter they hear on social media.

It is possible for a whisper number to be a more accurate forecast than consensus estimates when it comes to predicting earnings. This does not necessarily make whisper numbers more valid as a predictive option. It does help explain why sometimes stock prices have weird reactions, when compared to consensus estimates, following earnings releases.

Example of a Whisper Number

Assume that Apple Inc. (AAPL) has an earnings forecast for the quarter of $5 per share.

Traders actually believe the earnings will be higher, near $6 per share. As a result, the price gets pushed up ahead of the earnings, effectively pricing in the $6 EPS.

If the stock comes out with $6 EPS, a few people may be surprised and the stock may rise or fall marginally, but for the most part the price reflects the $6 number heading into the earnings.

If the earnings come out at $7, most everyone is surprised, and the stock jumps higher. If the EPS comes in at $5, in line with the consensus forecast but below the whisper number, the stock will likely sell off.

The whisper number isn't the only determinant on the stock price though. If the EPS comes in ahead of the whisper number, but stock index futures have sold off that day, the stock may sell off too. It is also hard to estimate how many people are using the whisper number ahead of earnings, which then makes it hard to predict how people will react when the actual number is released.