Three Things to Look for in Nike Earnings

Earnings season might be winding down, but when a company like Nike reports, investors perk up—even if they're not in the stock.

The global sports apparel and footwear company, which will release its third quarter earnings after the bell on Thursday, not only provides insight into the American economy, but also gives a great snapshot of business in China.

Nike is expected to report earnings per share of 67 cents on $6.23 billion in revenue, according to a consensus estimate from Thomson Reuters.

Beyond those numbers, there are three things investors will be looking for: future orders, gross margins, China.

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Nike uses the term "futures" as the metric that looks at pending orders for products, and it is something analysts look at for trends.

"In China, Nike doesn't have as much visibility in terms of end-use demand—not as much as they would like," said Credit Suisse's Christian Buss, who has a "neutral" rating on the stock.

Getting information in China from the retail level is difficult, and that has been part of the problem with a build-up in inventory there. Futures orders were down 7 percent last quarter.

"The reporting mechanism from local market players is informal at best," Buss said.

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China has been weak of late, and it this lack of visibility has been part of the problem. Inventory has built up, and it is taking a long time to clear it out.

"The real problem over the last year is the market is filled with a glut of inventory in sportswear," said Michael Binetti of UBS. "It's not just Nike. There are a lot of local brands over there with a lot of product lying around.

"The demand has fallen short of being able to clear that product, and that has weighed on Nike sales over there for a while."

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Margins are another key thing to watch. Gross margins have been compressing for almost 2.5 years.

"They said last quarter that they are expecting that (margins) to be up by about 80 basis points year over year. We're looking for them to reiterate them," Binetti said. "To hear that go positive would be very encouraging for people."

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Investors are also keeping an eye on the stock price.

In the last six months, Nike is up about 15 percent, but since hitting an all-time high last May, it's down about 6 percent. Perhaps, as the broader market keeps making new highs, it's a place to find some more upside?

"We still like where the stock is heading," Binetti said. "Nike is gaining a massive amount of market share.

"Nike is still in a very good position."

—By CNBC's Brian Shactman; Follow him on Twitter: @bshactman