The EPS House of Cards: Tricks of the Trade
As we enter the quarterly ritual of the tsunami of earnings reports, investors will be combing through the financial reports. Due to the flood of information, and increasingly shorter and shorter investment time horizons, much of investors’ focus will center on a few quarterly report metrics – primarily earnings per share (EPS), revenues, and forecasts/guidance (if provided).
Many lessons have been learned from the financial crisis over the last few years, and one of the major ones is to do your homework thoroughly. Relying on a AAA ratings from Moody’s (MCO) and S&P (when ratings should have been more appropriately graded D or F) or blindly following a “Buy” rating from a conflicted investment banking firm just does not make sense.
FINANCIAL SECTOR COLLAPSE
Given the severity of the losses, investors need to be more demanding and comprehensive in their earnings analysis. In many instances the reported earnings numbers resemble a deceptive house of cards on a weak foundation, merely overlooked by distracted investors. Case in point is the Financial sector, which before the financial collapse saw distorted multi-year growth, propelled by phantom earnings due to artificial asset inflation and excessive leverage. One need look no further than the weighting of Financial stocks, which ballooned from 5% of the total S&P 500 Index market capitalization in 1980 to a peak of 23% in 2007. Once the credit and real estate bubble burst, the sector subsequently imploded to around 9% of the index value around the March 2009 lows. Let’s be honest, and ask ourselves how much faith can we put in the Financial sector earnings figures that moved from +$22.79 in 2007 to a loss of -$21.24 in 2008? Since that time regulation and reform has put the sector on a more solid footing. Luckily, the opacity and black box nature of many of these Financials largely kept me out of the 2009 sector implosion.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
But the Financial sector is not the only fuzzy areas of accounting manipulation. Thanks to our friends at the FASB (Financial Accounting Standards Board), company management teams have discretion in how they apply different GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) rules. Saj Karsan, a contributing writer at Morningstar.com, also writes about the “Fallacy of Earnings Per Share.”
“EPS can fluctuate wildly from year to year. Writedowns, abnormal business conditions, asset sale gains/losses and other unusual factors find their way into EPS quite often. Investors are urged to average EPS over a business cycle, as stressed in Security Analysis Chapter 37, in order to get a true picture of a company’s earnings power.”
These gray areas of interpretation can lead to a range of distorted EPS outcomes. Here are a few ways companies can manipulate their EPS:
Distorted Expenses: If a $10 million manufacturing plant is expected to last 10 years, then the depreciation expense should be $1 million per year. If for some reason the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) suddenly decided the building would last 40 years rather than 10 years, then the expense would only be $250,000 per year. Voila, an instant $750,000 annual gain was created out of thin air due to management’s change in estimates.
Magical Revenues: Some companies have been known to do what’s called “stuffing the channel.” Or in other words, companies sometimes will ship product to a distributor or customer even if there is no immediate demand for that product. This practice can potentially increase the revenue of the reporting company, while providing the customer with more inventory on-hand. The major problem with the strategy is cash collection, which can be pushed way off in the future or become uncollectible.
Accounting Shifts: Under certain circumstances, specific expenses can be converted to an asset on the balance sheet, leading to inflated EPS numbers. A common example of this phenomenon occurs in the software industry, where software engineering expenses on the income statement get converted to capitalized software assets on the balance sheet. Again, like other schemes, this practice delays the negative expense effects on reported earnings.
Artificial Income: Not only did many of the trouble banks make imprudent loans to borrowers that were unlikely to repay, but the loans were made based on assumptions that asset prices would go up indefinitely and credit costs would remain freakishly low. Based on the overly optimistic repayment and loss assumptions, banks recognized massive amounts of gains which propelled even more imprudent loans. Needless to say, investors are now more tightly questioning these assumptions. That said, recent relaxation of mark-to-market accounting makes it even more difficult to estimate the true values of assets on the bank’s balance sheets.
Like dieting, there are no easy solutions. Tearing through the financial statements is tough work and requires a lot of diligence. My process of identifying winning stocks is heavily cash flow based (see my article on cash flow investing) analysis, which although lumpier and more volatile than basic EPS analysis, provides a deeper understanding of a company’s value-creating capabilities and true cash generation powers.
As earnings season kicks into full gear, do yourself a favor and not only take a more critical” eye towards company earnings, but follow the cash to a firmer conviction in your stock picks. Otherwise, those shaky EPS numbers may lead to a tumbling house of cards.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management has no direct position in MCO or MHP at the time this article was originally posted. 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.