David Sterman

We're entering one of the most important phases of the year for investors.

In the weeks ahead, many companies will set the tone for the remainder of 2012, laying out strategic goals along with sales and profit targets. For many companies, it will be the only time of the year they'll provide deep, forward-looking insights..

And though we all seem to be busier than ever, investors should carve out time to listen to conference calls of the companies on their watch list. There is simply no way to really understand a business -- and its prospects -- by only reading quarterly press releases.

Here are four key trends that may dominate the upcoming conference call season.

1. The (almighty) dollar
Thanks to the ongoing turmoil in Europe, the dollar has been bucking its long secular downward trend by rallying against the much-maligned euro. This is unfortunate for  many companies that reside in the S&P 500. The majority of them have considerable exposure to Europe, and a strong dollar hurts in two ways.

First, any profits made on the continent are worth less, since they are earned in euros. Second, U.S. firms become less competitive against their European peers when competing on a head-to-head basis. The dollar should eventually resume its steady downward decline, but look for companies such as Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG) to dampen their near-term forecasts.

2.  A clean slate for bank stocks
Quarterly results -- and the forward view -- are getting a lot less noisy for major banks. The era of major write-downs due to delinquent loans is fading, and though economic activity remains too weak for banks to start discussing a much brighter outlook, the underlying body language should be healthy. Banks have strong balance sheets, and in many instances, trade for less than tangible book value. I still prefer Citigroup (NYSE: C) as the bank stock to own for 2012.

David Sterman

David Sterman has worked as an investment analyst for nearly two decades. He is currently an analyst for StreetAuthority.com

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