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Q4 Earnings Season: Strong Growth, But Weak Quality

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It’s hard to consider the worthiness of a stock without sizing up the company’s profitability potential. Calling earnings as the mother’s milk of stocks is probably not an exaggeration. The bottom line is that earnings are very important to keep an eye on for anyone interested in stocks.

Everyone has an intuition for ‘earnings’ and see it as the leftover of sales after all the business expenses have been accounted for. This otherwise simple and intuitive principle gets complicated as a result of accounting rules that vary from country to country. In the U.S., the accounting rules mandating what can be called earnings (officially it’s called ‘net income’) in the company’s audited financial statements available to shareholders are called GAAP rules (GAAP stands for generally accepted accounting principles).

I am oversimplifying here, but GAAP rules don’t differentiate between business expenses that are incurred regularly and those that take place every now and then. The investing community likes to make that distinction; they see regular and recurring expenses as the only ones that should matter to those interested in evaluating the stock; the non-recurring ones need not be taken into account. As such, the investing community makes adjustments to reported GAAP earnings, by taking out non-recurring expenses and gains. All the earnings discussion you see in the marketplace is primarily about such ‘adjusted’ earnings.

And as you can imagine, such ‘adjusted’ earnings are (almost) always higher than the official GAAP earnings, but the ‘gap’ (no pun intended) between the two is typically not that big. That’s not the case in the ongoing Q4 earnings season, which ramps up in a big way this week with more than 250 companies reporting results, including 81 S&P 500 members.

For the 53 S&P 500 members that have reported Q4 results already, as of Friday, January 19th, the magnitude of gap between adjusted earnings and GAAP earnings is unlike anything we have seen over the last few years. On average, adjusted earnings were +6% higher than GAAP earnings over the preceding 16 quarters for these 53 S&P 500.

But as you can see in the chart below, the gap is extremely wide for 2017Q4 and likely to remain in record territory even as the reporting cycle moves beyond the Finance sector where the issue was very pronounced.

A lot goes into ‘earnings quality’. But as a general rule, it is reasonable to be wary of a big variance between adjusted and GAAP earnings. Going by this simple rule, you have to question the ‘quality’ of Q4 earnings reports, irrespective of the growth pace and proportion of positive surprises on the ‘adjusted’ earnings front.

A few specific examples should help make this point. Citigroup (C) earned $3.38 billion on an adjusted basis, but lost $18.8 billion on GAAP basis. American Express (AXP) earned $1.39 billion on an adjusted basis, but lost roughly $1.2 billion on GAAP basis. IBM (IBM - Free Report) earned $4.8 billion on an adjusted basis, but lost $1.1 billion on GAAP basis. The list goes on and on.

As pointed out at the top, it makes analytical sense to exclude these one-time charges from the data so that investors have a clear sense of underlying business trends and not get distracted by one-off gains or losses. Such charges were commonplace during the global financial crisis of 2008.

I will mention detail from that period – AIG (AIG) lost $52.1 billion for full-year 2008 on an adjusted basis and lost $103 billion that year on GAAP basis. It’s hard to envision any company improving upon that type of ‘performance’ in this earnings season.

The rest of the earnings discussion in this note will be using ‘adjusted’ earnings. But before I give you the Q4 earnings season scorecard on an adjusted earnings basis, let me give you the GAAP scorecard first.

On A GAAP basis, total earnings for the 53 S&P 500 members that have reported results already are down -57.8% from the same period last year on +7.5% higher revenues.

Q4 Earnings Season Scorecard (as of Friday, January 19, 2018)

Total earnings for the 53 S&P 500 members that have reported results already are up +11.7% from the same period last year on +7.5% higher revenues, with 81.1% beating EPS estimates and 75.5% beating revenue estimates. The proportion of companies beating both EPS and revenue estimates is 62.3%.

To put these results in a historical context, the charts below compare the results thus far with what we had seen from the same group of 53 index members in other recent periods.

Any way you look at these results, the Q4 earnings season is on track to be very good, notwithstanding the ‘quality’ issue highlighted earlier. Here are the four points that stand out from the results thus far.

•    First, the +11.7% earnings growth for the 53 index members compares is about the same as the +11.9% growth in Q3 and modestly below the 4-quarter average of +12.8%.

•    Second, the +7.5% revenue growth for these 53 index members represents a notable acceleration in growth momentum.

•    Third, the 81.1% proportion of the companies beating EPS estimates in Q4 is the highest we have seen from these 53 index members in other recent periods.

•    Fourth, the 75.5% of the companies beating revenue is similarly the highest we have seen from this group of companies in recent periods.

The Revenue Momentum

The comparison charts below highlight the emerging revenue momentum that’s coming out of the Q4 earnings season

We started this note by discussing the variance between adjusted and GAAP earnings this reporting season, but it is worth pointing out that there is no such issue on the revenues front. As such, this revenue momentum is a particularly positive aspect of this earnings season and the overall corporate earnings backdrop.

Standout Sectors

It is still relatively early, with no results yet from three of the 16 Zacks sectors. The most results at this stage have come from the Finance sector, with results from 47.5% of the sector’s market cap in the S&P 500 index.

Total earnings from these Finance sector companies that have reported already are up +4.8% from the same period last year on +3.8% higher revenues, with 85.7% beating EPS estimates and 61.9% beating revenue estimates.

The comparison chars below that growth (earnings & revenue) is tracking below other recent periods, but results have otherwise been better than expected. In other words, the proportion of companies beating estimates is above historical periods.

Key Earnings Reports for the Week of January 22nd

Monday (1/22): We have 28 companies coming out with results this day, of which 4 are S&P 500 members. Netflix (NFLX - Free Report) is the most notable report this day, coming after the market’s close. More than EPS and revenue results, the key metric in focus will be the company’s subscriber growth. The Zacks Consensus expectation is for domestic streaming subscriber base to reach 52.2 million, up from the preceding quarter’s 51.345 million ending balance. The company’s domestic streaming subscription base was 47.9 million at the end of December 2016. The key growth area for the company lately has been the international markets. On the international front, the expectation is for the streaming subscriber base to reach 57.18 million in Q4, up from Q3’s 52.678 million and the year-earlier 41.185 million.

Tuesday (1/23): We have 49 companies reporting results on Tuesday, including 15 S&P 500 members. Johnson & Johnson (JNJ - Free Report) , Proctor & Gamble (PG - Free Report) and Verizon (VZ - Free Report) are the notable reports in the morning session while United-Continental (UAL - Free Report) and Texas Instruments (TXN - Free Report) are the major reports after the close.

Wednesday (1/24): We have 63 companies reporting results on Tuesday, including 27 S&P 500 members. Comcast (CMCSA) and GE (GE - Free Report) are the notable of the 16 index members reporting in the morning while Ford (F) is the key report after the market’s close.

Thursday (1/25): More than 100 companies are reporting results on Thursday, including 28 S&P 500 members. Caterpillar (CAT) and 3M (MMM - Free Report) are the most notable of the 18 S&P 500 members reporting results in the morning while Intel (INTC - Free Report) and Starbucks (SBUX - Free Report) are reporting after the close.

Friday (1/26): Honeywell (HON - Free Report) is among the 6 index members reporting results Friday morning.

Expectations for Q4 As a Whole

Total Q4 earnings are expected to be up +10.3% from the same period last year on +7.1% higher revenues. This would follow +6.7% earnings growth in 2017 Q3 on +5.9% growth in revenues.

The table below shows the summary picture for Q4, contrasted with what was actually achieved in Q3.

The chart below shows Q4 earnings growth expectations contrasted with what is expected in the following three quarters and actual results in the preceding 5 quarters. As you can see in the chart below, the growth pace is expected to pick up in Q4 after dipping in the preceding quarter and continue accelerating going forward.

Tax Cuts Pushing Estimates Higher

I want to touch on the favorable revisions trend for the current and coming quarters at present. Regular readers will recall that estimates for the Q4 earnings season had held up unusually better in the run up to the start of this earnings season. But what we are witnessing with estimates for the current and following quarters is extremely positive.

The typical pattern over the last few years has been that estimates for the quarter will start coming down as we will get closer to the reporting season for that quarter. The opposite is the case with the current (and following) quarter(s), with estimates starting to go up in a notable way. You can clearly see this in the evolving earnings growth expectations for 2018 Q1, as depicted in the chart below.

Note: Sheraz Mian manages the Zacks equity research department. He is an acknowledged earnings expert whose commentaries and analyses appear on and in the print and electronic media. His weekly earnings related articles include Earnings Trends and Earnings Preview. He manages the Zacks Top 10 and Focus List portfolios and writes the Weekly Market Analysis article for Zacks Premium subscribers.

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Here is a list of the 262 companies including 81 S&P 500 and reporting this week.

Company Ticker Current Qtr Year-Ago Qtr Last EPS Surprise % Report Day Time
HALLIBURTON COHAL0.460.0410.53%MondayBTO
BANK OF MARINBMRC0.860.936.02%MondayBTO
BANK OF HAWAIIBOH1.091.020.00%MondayBTO
COMMNTY BK SYSCBU0.690.618.96%MondayBTO
OPUS BANKOPB0.4-0.55200.00%MondayBTO
NETFLIX INCNFLX0.410.15-9.38%MondayAMC
RESMED INCRMD0.780.731.54%MondayAMC
BROWN & BROWNBRO0.420.428.16%MondayAMC
FB FINANCIAL CPFBK0.540.4327.66%MondayAMC
WSFS FINL CORPWSFS0.660.56-1.54%MondayAMC
FULTON FINLFULT0.280.240.00%MondayAMC
LOGITECH INTLLOGI0.490.5917.24%MondayAMC
WOODWARD INCWWD0.60.738.89%MondayAMC
TRAVELERS COSTRV1.643.2139.47%TuesdayBTO
KIMBERLY CLARKKMB1.551.454.58%TuesdayBTO
VERIZON COMMVZ0.880.860.00%TuesdayBTO
FIFTH THIRD BKFITB0.470.480.00%TuesdayBTO
JOHNSON & JOHNSJNJ1.721.585.56%TuesdayBTO
WATERS CORPWAT2.442.211.72%TuesdayBTO
PROCTER & GAMBLPG1.141.081.87%TuesdayBTO
STATE ST CORPSTT1.711.486.21%TuesdayBTO
PROLOGIS INCPLD0.660.630.00%TuesdayBTO
SOUTH STATE CPSSB1.191.151.67%TuesdayBTO
SYNOVUS FINL CPSNV0.680.541.56%TuesdayBTO
WEBSTER FINL CPWBS0.670.64.69%TuesdayBTO
BANKUNITED INCBKU0.620.595.08%TuesdayBTO
FNB CORPFNB0.240.240.00%TuesdayBTO
FLAGSTAR BANCPFBC0.540.491.45%TuesdayBTO
OLD NATL BCPONB0.250.2819.23%TuesdayBTO
PEOPL BNCP-OHIOPEBO0.480.413.92%TuesdayBTO
POPULAR INCBPOP0.430.86-76.25%TuesdayBTO
ALLEGHENY TECHATI0.15-0.040.00%TuesdayBTO
LG DISPLAY-ADRLPL0.31.0411.32%TuesdayBTO
SHARPS COMPLIANSMED0.02-0.01-100.00%TuesdayBTO
TEXAS INSTRSTXN1.090.8812.50%TuesdayAMC
NAVIENT CORPNAVI0.420.4310.00%TuesdayAMC
CAPITAL ONE FINCOF1.851.4512.56%TuesdayAMC
TOTAL SYS SVCTSS0.750.699.09%TuesdayAMC
UNITED CONT HLDUAL1.341.781.83%TuesdayAMC
UMPQUA HLDGS CPUMPQ0.290.273.45%TuesdayAMC
FCB FINL HLDGSFCB0.740.6210.45%TuesdayAMC
HANMI FINL CPHAFC0.470.460.00%TuesdayAMC
LEGACY TX FINLLTXB0.620.540.00%TuesdayAMC
STERLING BANCPSTL0.380.3-2.78%TuesdayAMC
TRUSTMARK CPTRMK0.480.446.25%TuesdayAMC
UTD CMNTY BK/GAUCBI0.410.40.00%TuesdayAMC
UMB FINL CORPUMBF0.940.915.38%TuesdayAMC
WESBANCO INCWSBC0.610.59-6.25%TuesdayAMC
FIRST COMW FINLFCF0.210.2210.00%TuesdayAMC
GREAT SOUTH BCPGSBC0.820.830.00%TuesdayAMC
CDN NATL RY COCNI0.970.93-0.94%TuesdayAMC
FULLER(HB) COFUL0.840.74-4.41%TuesdayAMC
CREE INCCREE-0.10.0933.33%TuesdayAMC
TESSCO TECH INCTESS0.080.15110.00%TuesdayAMC
UTD COMM FIN CPUCFC0.070.120.00%TuesdayAMC
COSTAMARE INCCMRE0.150.286.67%TuesdayAMC
ACCURAY INCARAY-0.11-0.110.00%TuesdayAMC
PROGRESSIVE CORPGR0.770.6220.59%WednesdayBTO
UTD TECHS CORPUTX1.561.562.98%WednesdayBTO
GENL DYNAMICSGD2.362.623.70%WednesdayBTO
NORTHERN TRUSTNTRS1.31.117.14%WednesdayBTO
AMPHENOL CORP-AAPH0.810.7511.39%WednesdayBTO
COMCAST CORP ACMCSA0.470.446.12%WednesdayBTO
ABBOTT LABSABT0.730.651.54%WednesdayBTO
ROCKWELL AUTOMTROK1.741.75-1.74%WednesdayBTO
ILL TOOL WORKSITW1.621.393.64%WednesdayBTO
NORFOLK SOUTHRNNSC1.561.426.71%WednesdayBTO
ROYAL CARIBBEANRCL1.21.231.75%WednesdayBTO
STANLEY B&D INCSWK2.141.714.28%WednesdayBTO
TE CONNECT-LTDTEL1.251.157.76%WednesdayBTO
BAKER HUGHES GEBHGE0.14-0.3-58.33%WednesdayBTO
GRAINGER W WGWW2.182.4512.84%WednesdayBTO
GENL ELECTRICGE0.280.46-40.82%WednesdayBTO
RPC INCRES0.33-0.10.00%WednesdayBTO
BOK FINL CORPBOKF1.320.76-3.68%WednesdayBTO
CENTRAL PAC FINCPF0.410.39-4.88%WednesdayBTO
MARINEMAX INCHZO-0.010.11100.00%WednesdayBTO
NOVARTIS AG-ADRNVS1.161.123.20%WednesdayBTO
MARINE PRODUCTSMPX0.120.1-13.33%WednesdayBTO
AUDIOCODES LTDAUDC0.080.0750.00%WednesdayBTO
ROLLINS INCROL0.20.17-4.00%WednesdayBTO
COMMVAULT SYSTMCVLT0.050.01-100.00%WednesdayBTO
UNVL STAINLESSUSAP0.12-0.220.00%WednesdayBTO
DISCOVER FIN SVDFS1.531.43.92%WednesdayAMC
FORD MOTOR COF0.440.330.30%WednesdayAMC
AMERIPRISE FINLAMP3.12.7323.43%WednesdayAMC
XILINX INCXLNX0.630.524.84%WednesdayAMC
F5 NETWORKS INCFFIV1.561.4814.45%WednesdayAMC
SL GREEN REALTYSLG1.61.43-5.10%WednesdayAMC
LAM RESEARCHLRCX3.672.245.81%WednesdayAMC
UTD RENTALS INCURI3.342.678.33%WednesdayAMC
CROWN CASTLECCI1.011.154.55%WednesdayAMC
WHIRLPOOL CORPWHR4.014.33-1.79%WednesdayAMC
VARIAN MEDICALVAR0.980.75-8.40%WednesdayAMC
LEGG MASON INCLM0.840.514.49%WednesdayAMC
TRISTATE CP HLDTSC0.330.2716.67%WednesdayAMC
ASPEN TECH INCAZPN0.450.486.82%WednesdayAMC
BRIGGS & STRATTBGG0.230.3522.86%WednesdayAMC
CAROLINA FIN CPCARO0.360.46-1.96%WednesdayAMC
TEXAS CAP BCSHSTCBI1.160.960.90%WednesdayAMC
LAS VEGAS SANDSLVS0.770.6214.93%WednesdayAMC
BANCORPSOUTH BKBXS0.410.42.38%WednesdayAMC
CVB FINLCVBF0.270.250.00%WednesdayAMC
BANNER CORPBANR0.790.71-1.30%WednesdayAMC
ETHAN ALLEN INTETH0.510.390.00%WednesdayAMC
FRANKLIN FNL NWFSB0.630.584.84%WednesdayAMC
PEOPLES UTAH BCPUB0.380.362.78%WednesdayAMC
COHEN&STRS INCCNS0.550.485.77%WednesdayAMC
CUSTOMERS BANCPCUBI0.480.76-14.08%WednesdayAMC
FIRST CT BANCRPFBNK0.350.270.00%WednesdayAMC
NATL COMMERCENCOM0.480.44-2.13%WednesdayAMC
RLI CORPRLI0.480.56100.00%WednesdayAMC
TERADYNE INCTER0.340.3225.58%WednesdayAMC
NOVAGOLD RSRCSNG-0.04-0.020.00%WednesdayAMC
CELESTICA INCCLS0.20.3421.05%WednesdayAMC
LIVE OAK BNCSHLOB0.260.17100.00%WednesdayAMC
DOLBY LAB INC-ADLB0.440.51118.75%WednesdayAMC
HEXCEL CORPHXL0.70.642.90%WednesdayAMC
Raymond Jas FinRJF1.431.079.70%WednesdayN/A
NORTHROP GRUMMNNOC2.752.6626.03%ThursdayBTO
SHERWIN WILLIAMSHW3.182.341.06%ThursdayBTO
RAYTHEON CORTN2.021.883.68%ThursdayBTO
UNION PAC CORPUNP1.541.390.67%ThursdayBTO
CATERPILLAR INCCAT1.770.8359.84%ThursdayBTO
3M COMMM2.031.885.43%ThursdayBTO
BIOGEN INCBIIB5.455.0410.70%ThursdayBTO
AMER AIRLINESAAL0.920.922.16%ThursdayBTO
ALASKA AIR GRPALK0.831.56-0.44%ThursdayBTO
CELGENE CORPCELG1.771.413.49%ThursdayBTO
FREEPT MC COP-BFCX0.490.2517.24%ThursdayBTO
L3 TECHNOLOGIESLLL2.312.381.03%ThursdayBTO
SOUTHWEST AIRLUV0.760.741.15%ThursdayBTO
PRAXAIR INCPX1.481.414.17%ThursdayBTO
AMER ELEC PWRAEP0.80.67-4.35%ThursdayBTO
ALLIANCE DATAADS4.724.457.50%ThursdayBTO
MCCORMICK & COMKC1.521.276.67%ThursdayBTO
BANC OF CA INCBANC0.230.5431.58%ThursdayBTO
HERITAGE FIN CPHFWA0.360.330.00%ThursdayBTO
CULLEN FROST BKCFR1.391.287.63%ThursdayBTO
EAST WEST BCEWBC0.920.762.30%ThursdayBTO
OSHKOSH CORPOSK0.530.2635.29%ThursdayBTO
VALLEY NATL BCPVLY0.170.19-5.56%ThursdayBTO
APPLD INDL TECHAIT0.710.6113.16%ThursdayBTO
LAKELAND FINLLKFN0.610.533.33%ThursdayBTO
AMER RIVER BSHAMRB0.20.29-19.05%ThursdayBTO
FIAT CHRYSLERFCAU0.670.3829.63%ThursdayBTO
S&T BANCORP INCSTBA0.630.518.33%ThursdayBTO
ALLEGIANCE BCSHABTX0.530.44-55.10%ThursdayBTO
MB FINANCL INCMBFI0.630.5912.50%ThursdayBTO
EURONAV SAEURN-0.10.0928.00%ThursdayBTO
GREAT WSTRN BCPGWB0.630.634.92%ThursdayBTO
MONRO MUFFLERMNRO0.480.531.85%ThursdayBTO
ROGERS COMM CLBRCI0.680.522.53%ThursdayBTO
CARBO CERAMICSCRR-0.63-0.26-14.12%ThursdayBTO
STATE BANK FINLSTBZ0.380.282.78%ThursdayBTO
AVX CORPAVX0.180.210.00%ThursdayBTO
CABOT MICROELECCCMP1.020.9222.99%ThursdayBTO
INTL SPEEDWAYISCA0.750.7220.00%ThursdayBTO
NEUROMETRIX INCNURO-1.4-4.16-94.37%ThursdayBTO
OLD REP INTLORI0.380.43200.00%ThursdayBTO
UNIFI INCUFI0.390.344.35%ThursdayBTO
LSI INDUSTRIESLYTS0.070.175.00%ThursdayBTO
TAL EDUCATN-ADRTAL0.080.03-16.67%ThursdayBTO
E TRADE FINL CPETFC0.620.437.84%ThursdayAMC
PERKINELMER INCPKI0.940.831.39%ThursdayAMC
KLA-TENCOR CORPKLAC1.721.5210.43%ThursdayAMC
WESTERN DIGITALWDC3.441.988.97%ThursdayAMC
INTUITIVE SURGISRG1.951.7758.39%ThursdayAMC
INTEL CORPINTC0.860.7926.25%ThursdayAMC
STARBUCKS CORPSBUX0.570.520.00%ThursdayAMC
GALLAGHER ARTHUAJG0.750.663.85%ThursdayAMC
SVB FINL GPSIVB2.61.8921.83%ThursdayAMC
FEDERATED INVSTFII0.590.525.66%ThursdayAMC
COBIZ FINL INCCOBZ0.270.2117.39%ThursdayAMC
COLUMBIA BK SYSCOLB0.560.5332.08%ThursdayAMC
NATIONAL BK HLDNBHC0.330.36-13.33%ThursdayAMC
CAPSTAR FIN HLDCSTR0.280.2359.09%ThursdayAMC
ASSOC BANC CORPASB0.380.3413.89%ThursdayAMC
IBERIABANK CORPIBKC1.261.16-11.50%ThursdayAMC
FIRST HAWAIIANFHB0.410.40.00%ThursdayAMC
INVESTORS BANCPISBC0.150.1823.08%ThursdayAMC
SEACOAST BKNG ASBCF0.360.32.94%ThursdayAMC
HILLTOP HLDGSHTH0.420.36-27.91%ThursdayAMC
GREEN BANCORPGNBC0.340.07-3.03%ThursdayAMC
MARTEN TRANSMRTN0.160.157.69%ThursdayAMC
MIDLAND STATESMSBI0.590.72-15.52%ThursdayAMC
QUALITY SYSQSII0.120.2135.71%ThursdayAMC
CELANESE CP-ACE1.861.520.52%ThursdayAMC
BRANDYWINE RTBDN0.330.350.00%ThursdayAMC
ABAXIS INCABAX0.270.30.00%ThursdayAMC
MICROSEMI CORPMSCC0.820.628.51%ThursdayAMC
FAIR ISAAC INCFICO0.711.166.84%ThursdayAMC
FLEXTRONIC INTLFLEX0.230.3111.11%ThursdayAMC
K12 INCLRN0.230.340.00%ThursdayAMC
BANCORP BNK/THETBBK0.11-0.430.00%ThursdayAMC
DIGI INTL INCDGII-0.040.08100.00%ThursdayAMC
DATAWATCH CORPDWCH-0.02-0.15-150.00%ThursdayAMC
MATTHEWS INTL-AMATW0.580.62-2.75%ThursdayAMC
8X8 INCEGHT-0.04-0.01-100.00%ThursdayAMC
TIMKENSTEEL CPTMST-0.34-1.52-62.50%ThursdayAMC
MITEK SYSTEMSMITK-0.03040.00%ThursdayAMC
CLEARFIELD INCCLFD0.060.0650.00%ThursdayAMC
MAXIM INTG PDTSMXIM0.640.469.09%ThursdayAMC
FIRST MERCHANTSFRME0.610.5510.91%ThursdayN/A
Robt Half IntlRHI0.630.61-1.45%ThursdayN/A
Wynn Resrts LtdWYNN1.360.510.95%ThursdayN/A
ABBVIE INCABBV1.441.21.44%FridayBTO
AIR PRODS & CHEAPD1.661.474.14%FridayBTO
GENTEX CORPGNTX0.320.310.00%FridayBTO
PROVIDNT FIN SVPFS0.380.3510.81%FridayBTO
POLYONE CORPPOL0.390.385.45%FridayBTO
HILL-ROM HLDGSHRC0.790.753.94%FridayBTO
MOOG INC AMOG.A0.850.8412.63%FridayBTO
NEXTERA EGY PTRNEP0.260.91-97.30%FridayBTO

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