Dueling Market Swamis

The consternation over what counts toward profits is never more intense than in the seconds after a company announces its latest earnings and investors try to figure out whether it has hit or missed Wall Street estimates. For years, market pros have relied heavily on those compiled by Thomson First Call in deciding whether to bid a stock up or down.

Now, TheMarkets.com, a joint venture of 11 major Wall Street brokerages, is challenging First Call's supremacy. On Oct. 29, it announced that it will offer links to analysts' accounting explanations with its new estimate-tracking service. First Call began phasing in a similar tool on its First Call Analyst site in the spring.

The competition should result in more complete information. For example, both services aim to show with the click of a mouse whether analysts include restructuring charges and losses on assets that some companies say should be ignored. The goal: to give clients a chance to weigh alternative opinions on the most useful way to track companies' earnings.

Until now, the few analysts whose methods were at odds with the view of the majority had a hard time being heard: First Call used to discard their estimates. David F. Eisner, CEO of TheMarkets.com, says: "Institutional investors want to delve behind the bottom-line number to understand how it was calculated."

Indeed, with accounting issues quickly moving stocks, no investor can afford to accept a single earnings number at face value these days.

By David Henry in New York

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