You know it has been a crazy day when, with equities plummeting across the board, one of your best bets would have been Ford. The struggling carmaker reported a surprise quarterly profit on Thursday morning. Its stock rose 1.5 per cent on a day when the Dow Jones Industrial Average slid by 311.5 points.

Never mind that this was not exactly the most opportune moment for Ford to beat expectations, given the critical union negotiations it has just begun. ExxonMobil, meanwhile, reported a rare miss on quarterly earnings. Despite its solid finances and reputation for operational excellence, that was enough to wipe 4.9 per cent from the stock of the world’s largest listed company. The resulting $26bn loss of value compares with Ford’s market capitalisation of $15bn.

Rising stocks were a select bunch, even if they hailed from a somewhat motley cross-section of industries. Big winners included Apple, MEMC Electronics, and UST – makers of the iPod, industrial machinery, and smokeless tobacco products, respectively. Oddly, traditional defensives followed the crowd downwards, with the electricity utilities ending the day down 3 per cent. That was despite a sharp fall in US Treasury yields, which ought to make utilities’ dividend yields more attractive.

The mass sell-off was prompted by fears that mortgage problems had triggered a wider credit crunch, so it was a case of sell what you could – gold also fell, despite being a traditional safe haven. There was, however, one consistent theme running through the winners: well-timed earnings announcements or upgrades to guidance. These factors lifted eight of the S&P 500’s top 10 risers.

So at least some investors were smiling on Thursday evening. That this was largely down to solid performance in the underlying businesses is heartening. As ever, though, as Exxon’s and Ford’s experience testifies to, timing is everything.

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