Legendary investor Warren Buffett once said, "Only when the tide goes out do you discover who is swimming naked." To CNBC's Jim Cramer, that statement "is the perfect tagline for this ... awful earnings season."
"We're seeing lots of 'naked' CEOs along with plenty of good ones in swimming trunks, and often, they're in the exact same sector," the "Mad Money" host said Wednesday as the earnings wave continued. "So who's swimming naked, something we need to know before we start buying into this horrendous tape?"
Cramer started with telecommunications rivals Verizon and AT&T, both of which recently issued their third-quarter earnings reports. While Verizon's subscriber numbers beat estimates, AT&T's report showed points of weakness.
"Verizon's firing on all cylinders. It's a buy if it ever comes down again. ATT, on the other hand? It missed badly," Cramer said, noting that AT&T's 6.6 percent dividend yield was too high for his taste.
"The cash flow, though, is very strong," he acknowledged. "But I do think there's become a lack of predictability and some real paltry subscriber gains that need to be addressed if ATT's ever going to regain its status as a blue-chip stock."
"Just an unacceptable number from a great American company," Cramer said, doubling down on prior criticism. "We had had a big position in 3M for my charitable trust. ... Fortunately, we sold a big chunk of it because we didn't like what we had heard about the company's auto exposure. What we didn't expect was a sudden decline in 3M's health-care and consumer businesses, and we didn't expect management to slash its forecast."
In the meantime, fellow industrials Honeywell and United Technologies posted strong results and raised their earnings forecasts. Cramer worried that if 3M's new CEO, Michael Roman, didn't start delivering comparable gains, he "may be yanked like John Flannery was after a very short period at GE."
The pharmaceutical sector could see added pain when Bristol-Myers Squibb reports Thursday morning, Cramer said, because it "has fallen behind the rest of the group, in part because the company's major anti-cancer franchise seems to be eroding."
But business at competitor Merck seems to be getting stronger, he said. Merck's flagship cancer immunotherapy drug, Keytruda, has driven much of the company's recent gains.
All this solidified Cramer's theory that "the world is slowing," an idea he has addressed repeatedly in his criticism of the Federal Reserve's plans to hike rates amid what he sees as nascent economic weakness.
"That's been my thesis despite all the happy talk from the president and the Fed. But some companies are managing the tide better than others," the "Mad Money" host said. "When the tide [of selling] stops, and I believe it might ... when October finally and mercifully ends, the swimmers with trunks [will] get bought. But the ones that are naked? All I can say is hide your eyes."
Disclosure: Cramer's charitable trust owns shares of 3M and Honeywell.