Bloomberg News

BOSTON — “Whisper numbers,” unofficial company earnings estimates published on Web sites or passed by analysts to favored clients, may be saying a lot less than they used to.

The average Web whisper number missed reported fourth-quarter earnings by 30%, and analysts missed by 22%, according to a Bloomberg analysis. In a similar study by Bloomberg in mid-1999, whispers for AMR Corp., Genentech Inc., Motorola Inc., and others were more accurate than analysts. The latter were off by 44% and whispers by 21% in the earlier study.

If analysts now are closer to the mark, it may be because of a professional failing: They tend to underestimate earnings.

With U.S. corporate profit growth slowing, or even falling, the actual results are moving toward the estimated numbers. A new rule barring companies from doling out market-moving information on the sly to analysts may also figure in their improved record.

“The game has changed,” said Stan Levine, former director of quantitative research at First Call/Thomson Financial. Mr. Levine, now an independent researcher, did his own study, reviewing estimates of fourth-quarter earnings going back seven years. In the first six years, he found, analysts’ forecasts tended to fall increasingly short of corporate results. This bias, as he called it, was reversed in last year’s fourth quarter, as analysts’ estimates came closer to actual earnings.

Mr. Levine said he believes the cause is Regulation FD, the five-month-old Securities and Exchange Commission “fair disclosure” rule barring companies from feeding information only to favored investors and analysts.

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