EBITDA: Sniffing Out the Truth

April 6, 2010 at 11:00 pm 1 comment

Financial analysts are constantly seeking the Holy Grail when it comes to financial metrics, and to some financial number crunchers EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest Taxes Depreciation and Amortization – pronounced “eebit-dah”) fits the bill. On the flip side, Warren Buffett’s right hand man Charlie Munger advises investors to replace EBITDA with the words “bullsh*t earnings” every time you encounter this earnings metric. We’ll explore the good, bad, and ugly attributes of this somewhat controversial financial metric. 

The Genesis of EBITDA

The origin of the EBITDA measure can be traced back many years, and rose in popularity during the technology boom of the 1990s. “New Economy” companies were producing very little income, so investment bankers became creative in how they defined profits. Under the guise of comparability, a company with debt (Company X) that was paying interest expense could not be compared on an operational profit basis with a closely related company that operated with NO debt (Company Z). In other words, two identical companies could be selling the same number of widgets at the same prices and have the same cost structure and operating income, but the company with debt on their balance sheet would have a different (lower) net income. The investment banker and company X’s answer to this apparent conundrum was to simply compare the operating earnings or EBIT (Earnings Before Interest and Taxes) of each company (X and Z), rather than the disparate net incomes.  

The Advantages of EBITDA

Although there is no silver bullet metric in financial statement analysis, nevertheless there are numerous benefits to using EBITDA. Here are a few:

  • Operational Comparability:  As implied above, EBITDA allows comparability across a wide swath of companies. Accounting standards provide leniency in the application of financial statements, therefore using EBITDA allows apples-to-apples comparisons and relieves accounting discrepancies on items such as depreciation, tax rates, and financing choice. 
  • Cash Flow Proxy: Since the income statement traditionally is the financial statement of choice, EBITDA can be easily derived from this statement and provides a simple proxy for cash generation in the absence of other data.
  • Debt Coverage Ratios:  In many lender contracts certain debt provisions require specific levels of income cushion above the required interest expense payments. Evaluating EBITDA coverage ratios across companies assists analysts in determining which businesses are more likely to default on their debt obligations.

The Disadvantages of EBITDA

While EBITDA offers some benefits in comparing a broader set of companies across industries, the metric also carries some drawbacks.

  • Overstates Income:  To Charlie Munger’s point about the B.S. factor, EBITDA distorts reality. From an equity holder’s standpoint, in most instances, investors are most concerned about the level of income and cash flow available AFTER all expenses, including interest expense, depreciation expense, and  income tax expense.
  • Neglects Working Capital Requirements: EBITDA may actually be a decent proxy for cash flows for many companies, however this profit measure does not account for the working capital needs of a business. For example, companies reporting high EBITDA figures may actually have dramatically lower cash flows once working capital requirements (i.e., inventories, receivables, payables) are tabulated.
  • Poor for Valuation: Investment bankers push for more generous EBITDA valuation multiples because it serves the bankers’ and clients’ best interests. However, the fact of the matter is that companies with debt or aggressive depreciation schedules do deserve lower valuations compared to debt-free counterparts (assuming all else equal).

Wading through the treacherous waters of accounting metrics can be a dangerous game. Despite some of EBITDA’s comparability benefits, and as much as bankers and analysts would like to use this very forgiving income metric, beware of EBITDA’s shortcomings. Although most analysts are looking for the one-size-fits-all number, the reality of the situation is a variety of methods need to be used to gain a more accurate financial picture of a company. If EBITDA is the only calculation driving your analysis, I urge you to follow Charlie Munger’s advice and plug your nose.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing had no direct positions in any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

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