Given that there's no real reason why Pulte Homes' financial results will be marginally better or worse than any other of the public builders', it's unlikely that anyone is expecting any good news to come out of its release after market close today.
The real question for the Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based builder is: How bad was it?
Average analyst estimates are saying the builder will lose $0.71 a share, but that average was based on a range of a loss of $2.11 a share to just $0.01 a share.
How analysts feel about a company's earnings potential tends to depend on how they feel about its land strategy. As many other large public builders have set out to become "land light," shedding every lot they can to gain cash from the sale and tax refunds on the losses. Pulte CEO Richard Dugas has said several times that the company is standing pat on its land holdings. Pulte has already eliminated its dreg positions, and the land it has left will be valuable and difficult to replace when the market turns, he has argued.
Pulte's strategy may have some merit, particularly related to its Del Webb active adult component. As the market began to slow, Pulte was running low on the large parcels favored for its active adult developments. That part of Pulte's portfolio has performed slightly better in the downturn, so it's likely vital that the company keeps whatever Del Webb land it has corralled.
Still, some analysts penalize the company for stubbornly holding onto its land assets.
In a recent note about Pulte, JMP Research cited the company's "aggressive late-cycle land purchases in many overpriced markets" as a strike against it. At the same time, JMP said that negative was "somewhat offset" by the strength of the builder's Del Webb communities.
"The company continues to perform well in Southwestern markets, particularly Phoenix and Las Vegas, where its Del Webb active adult brand has seen very steady sales and less pricing pressure than the overall market," JMP Research's James F. Wilson wrote.
As Pulte has logged quarter after quarter of significant losses, it has been able to emphasize one positive: its cash position. While the company did not offer guidance for its fourth quarter earnings during its third-quarter earnings release, it did stick to its prediction that it would have between $1.6 billion and $1.8 billion in cash on hand at the end of 2008.
Still, the question is whether that will be enough to keep the builder afloat until profitability returns. That largely depends on when sales return, but it also has a lot to do with how far the company can trim its SG&A.
JMP expects Pulte to do a good job of that. "SG&A has finally been ratcheted down, and we expect a continued decline in SG&A as a percent of revenue through FY09," JMP's Wilson wrote.