Posts tagged ‘earnings per share’

Share Buybacks and Bathroom Violators

We all have our own unique pet peeves that drive us crazy, and I am no exception. More grating than fingernails scraping down the chalkboard or rude drivers who refuse to let you merge lanes are those citizens that unabashedly exercise poor public bathroom etiquette. The only thing worse than listening to the loud-mouth cell phone talker in the neighboring stall is watching a restroom participant move straight from zipper closure (if they remember), immediately to the bathroom exit. I mean really, would it kill you at a minimum to pay a visit to the sink and feign a phantom hand-swipe under some running water? Don’t those people understand that I have to grab the same handle they use to exit the facility after they conduct their bathroom business? OK, now that I have gotten this issue off my chest, I feel better and I can get off my soapbox (no pun intended).

Something Stinks in Share Buyback Land

Beyond potty etiquette, there is another maddening pet peeve that drives me nuts in the realm of corporate capital allocation. I like to call this particular scheme the “empty share buyback.” Those companies that announce the empty share buyback do it with the intention of either getting a quick, short-term jump in stock price, or use the ploy as a way to indirectly line their pockets with future stock and option grants.

Here are a few ways on how the ruse works:

Scheme #1 – The Empty Pump-Fake: In one form or another, here is what the CEO basically says, “We plan to buyback zillions of shares from time to time, based on market conditions, and do not have any set expiration date for the plan.” In other words, the company executives are committing to absolutely nothing, but are hoping to confuse traders into buying shares to temporarily increase the stock price, so management can unload their shares for a swift profit. In actuality the management team is not obligated to purchase one share and may keep the pseudo-share buyback plan in place for years with no benefit to shareholders.

Scheme #2 – The Pocket Swap: Another one of my favorites, I like to call the pocket swap. Management effectively exchanges money from one pocket to the other. Typically management starts off by stating, “We treasure investor feedback, so we have initiated a new program to return capital to our valued shareholders in the form of a share buyback.” What they usually don’t tell investors is that the shares are being purchased (with shareholder money), so the executives can give more shares back to themselves (and a few other fortunate employees). That’s great for them, but what about me?!

At the end of the day, if the management team is truly working for the shareholder, the game is all about reducing the outstanding share count, which thereby increases earnings per share (and better yet free cash flow per share). Despite the recent climb in interest rates, yields are still near multi-decade lows. Corporations are flush with cash after cutting expenses to the bone, delaying hiring, and riding the global recovery wave. For those real investors not trading a position for a few days, weeks, or months, it behooves you to hold management’s feet to the fire to make sure “empty pump-fakes” or “pocket swap” share buybacks are not occurring.

If you have difficulty gauging the integrity of those management teams announcing share buybacks, I have a litmus test that can be used to judge the executive’s true intentions. It’s quite simple – just follow the CEO into the bathroom (same gender required) and see whether they honorably follow bathroom etiquette by washing their hands after completing their duty. Sleuth work can be tricky, but failure in determining the genuine purpose of management’s capital allocation decisions can lead to a share buyback program that will get flushed down the toilet.

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 SCM had no direct position in any other 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.

March 4, 2011 at 12:58 am Leave a comment

EPS House of Cards: Tricks of the Trade

House of cards and money

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.


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? Current forecasts for the sector are looking for a rebound back up to +$11.91 in 2010. Luckily, the opacity and black box nature of many of these Financials largely kept me out of the 2009 sector implosion. 


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, 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.  

Read Saj Karsan’s Full Article

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.

October 13, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Receive Investing Caffeine blog posts by email.

Join 1,812 other subscribers

Meet Wade Slome, CFA, CFP®

DSC_0244a reduced

More on Sidoxia Services


Top Financial Advisor Blogs And Bloggers – Rankings From Nerd’s Eye View |

Share this blog

Bookmark and Share

Subscribe to Blog RSS

Monthly Archives