Posts tagged ‘Non-GAAP’

Monitoring the Tricks Hidden Up Corporate Sleeves


As Warren Buffett correctly states, “If you are in a poker game and after 20 minutes, you don’t know who the patsy is, then you are the patsy.” The same principle applies to investing and financial analysis. If you are unable to determine who is cooking (or warming) the books via deceptive practices, then you will be left holding a bag of losses as tears of regret pour down your face. The name of the stock investing game (not speculation game) is to accurately gauge the financial condition of a company and then to correctly forecast the trajectory of future earnings and cash flows.

Unfortunately for investors, many companies work quite diligently to obscure, hide, and distort the accuracy of their current financial condition. Without the ability of making a proper assessment of a company’s financials, an investor by definition will be unable to value stocks.

There are scores of accounting tricks that companies hide up their sleeves to mislead investors. Many people consider GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) as the laws or rules governing financial reporting, but GAAP parameters actually provide companies with extensive latitude in the way accounting reports are implemented. Here are a few of the ways companies exercise their wiggle room in disclosing financial results:

Depreciation Schedules: Related to GAAP accounting, adjustments to longevity estimates by a company’s management team can tremendously impact a company’s reported earnings. For example, if a $10 million manufacturing plant is expected to last 10 years, then the depreciation expense should be $1 million per year ($10m ÷ 10 years). If for some reason the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) suddenly changes his/her mind and decides the building should last 40 years rather than 10 years, then the company’s annual expense would miraculously decrease -75% to $250,000. Voila, an instant $750,000 annual gain created out of thin air! Other depreciation tricks include the choice of accelerated or straight-line depreciation.

Capitalizing Expenses: If you were a management team member with a goal of maximizing current reported profitability, would you be excited to learn that you are not required to report expenses on your income statement? For many the answer is absolutely “yes”.  A common example of this phenomenon occurs with companies in the software industry (or other companies with heavy research and development), where research expenses normally recognized on the income statement get converted instead to capitalized assets on the balance sheet. Eventually these capitalized assets get amortized (recognized as expenses) on the income statement. Proponents argue capitalizing expenses better matches future revenues to future expenses, but regardless, this scheme boosts current reported earnings, and delays expense recognition.

Stuffing the Channel: No, this is not a personal problem, but rather occurs when companies force their goods on a distributor or customer – even if the goods (or service) are not requested. This deceitful practice is performed to drive up short-term revenue, even if the reporting company receives no cash for the “stuffing”. Ballooning receivables and substandard cash flow generation can be a sign of this cunning, corporate custom.

Accounts Receivable/Loans: Ballooning receivables is a potential sign of juiced reported revenues and profits, but there are more nuanced ways of manipulating income. For instance, if management temporarily lowers warranty expenses and product return assumptions, short-term profits can be artificially boosted. In addition, when discussing financial figures for banks, loans can also be considered receivables. As we experienced in the last financial crisis, many banks under-provisioned for future bad loans (i.e. didn’t create enough cash reserves for misled/deadbeat borrowers), thereby overstating the true, underlying, fundamental earnings power of the banks.

Inventories: As it relates to inventories, GAAP accounting allows for FIFO (First-In, First-Out) or LIFO (Last-In, Last-Out) recognition of expenses. Depending on whether prices of inventories are rising or falling, the choice of accounting method could boost reported results.

Pension Assumptions: Most companies like their employees…but not the expenses they have to pay in order to keep them. Employee expenses can become excessively burdensome, especially for those companies offering their employees a defined benefit pension plan. GAAP rules mandate employers to contribute cash to the pension plan (i.e., retirement fund) if the returns earned on the assets (i.e., stocks & bonds) are below previous company assumptions. One temporary fix to an underfunded pension is for companies to assume higher plan returns in the future.  For example, if companies raise their return assumptions on plan assets from 5% to a higher rate of 10%, then profits for the company are likely to rise, all else equal.

Non-GAAP (or Pro Forma): Why would companies report Non-GAAP numbers on their financial reports rather than GAAP earnings? The simple answer is that Non-GAAP numbers appear cosmetically higher than GAAP figures, and therefore preferred by companies for investor dissemination purposes.

Merger Magic: Typically when a merger or acquisition takes place, the acquiring company announces a bunch of one-time expenses that they want investors to ignore. Since there are so many moving pieces in a merger, that means there is also more opportunities to use smoke and mirrors. The recent $8.8 billion write-off of Hewlett-Packard’s (HPQ) acquisition of Autonomy is evidence of merger magic performed.

EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest Taxes Depreciation & Amortization): Skeptics, like myself, call this metric “earnings before all expenses.” Or as Charlie Munger says, Warren Buffett’s right-hand man, “Every time you see the word EBITDA, substitute it with the words ‘bulls*it earnings’!”

This is only a short-list of corporate accounting gimmicks used to distort financial results, so for the sake of your investment portfolio, please check for any potential tricks up a company’s sleeve before making an investment.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in HPQ/Autonomy,  or 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.

February 24, 2013 at 12:54 am 1 comment

Operating Earnings: Half-Empty or Half-Full?

A continual debate goes on between bulls and bears about which earnings metric is more important: reported earnings based on GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) or “operating earnings,” which exclude one-time charges and gains, along with non-cash charges, such as options expenses. Bulls generally prefer operating earnings (glass half-full) because they are typically higher than GAAP earnings (glass half-empty), and therefore operating earnings make valuation metrics more attractive. This disparity between earnings choice is even broader over the last few years due to the massive distortions created by the financial crisis – gigantic write-downs at the vast majority of financial institutions and enormous restructurings at non-financial companies.

Options Smoptions

The options expense issue can also become a religious argument, similar to the paradoxical question that asks if God can create a rock big enough that he himself cannot budge? Logic would dictate that operating earnings should adequately account for option issuance in the denominator of the earnings per share calculation (Net Income / Shares Outstanding). As far as I’m concerned, the GAAP method reducing the numerator of EPS (Earnings Per Share) with an expense, and increasing the denominator by increasing shares from option issuance is merely double counting the expense, thereby distorting reality. Reading through an annual report and/or proxy may not be a joyous experience, but the exercise will help you triangulate share issuance estimates to forecast the drag on future EPS.

On a trailing 12-month basis (Sep’09 – Sep’10), Standard & Poor’s calculated reported earnings with about a -9% differential from operating earnings, equating to approximately a 1.5 Price/Earnings multiple point differential (17.8x’s for reported earnings and 16.2 x’s for operating earnings). For the half-glass full bulls, the picture looks even prettier based on 2011 operating earnings forecasts – the S&P 500 index is priced at roughly 13.6x’s the 2011 index earnings value of $95.45.

Forward More Important Than Backwards

As I make the case in my P/E binoculars article, the market is like a game of chess – a good player doesn’t care nearly as much about an opponent’s last moves as he/she cares about the opponent’s future moves. Financial markets operate in the same fashion, future earnings are much more important than prior earnings. From a practical standpoint, GAAP earnings are relatively useless. Market purists can evangelize about the merits of GAAP earnings until they are blue in the face, but the fact of the matter is that investors are whipping prices all over the place based on Wall Street EPS forecasts – based on operating earnings (not GAAP). In many instances, especially throughout much of the financial crisis, operating earnings will more closely align with the cash flows of a company relative to GAAP earnings, but detailed fundamental analysis is needed.

As far as I’m concerned, much of this GAAP vs Non-GAAP earnings debate is moot because both reported earnings and operating earnings can both be manipulated and distorted. I prefer using cash flows (see Cash Flow Statement article) because cash register accounting – the analysis of money coming in and out of a company – limits the ability of bean counters to use smoke and mirror strategies traditionally saved for the income statement. In other words, you cannot compensate employees, do acquisitions, distribute dividends, or buyback stock with GAAP earnings…all these functions require cold, hard cash. The key metric, rather than EPS, should be free cash flow per share. Growth companies with high return prospects should be given some leeway, but if the projects don’t earn a return, eventually cash resources will dry up. When EPS is materially higher than free cash flow per share, yellow flags fly up and I do additional research to understand the dynamics causing the differential.

These earnings-based arguments will likely never get resolved, but if investors focus on bottom-up analysis on individual security cash flows, determining whether the glass is half-empty or half-full will become much easier.

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 security referenced in this article. The trailing 12 month data was calculated by S&P as of 1/19/2011. Forward 2011 operating earnings were calculated as of 1/18/2011. 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.

January 24, 2011 at 2:09 am Leave a comment

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