Posts tagged ‘S&P’

Sleeping like a Baby with Your Investment Dollars

Amidst the recent, historically high volatility in the financial markets, there have been a large percentage of investors who have been sleeping like a baby – a baby that stays up all night crying! For some, the dream-like doubling of equity returns achieved from the first half of 2009 through the first half of 2011 quickly turned into a nightmare over the last few weeks. We live in an inter-connected, globalized world where news travels instantaneously and fear spreads like a damn-bursting flood. Despite the positive returns earned in recent years, the wounds of 2008-2009 (and 2000 to a lesser extent) remain fresh in investors’ minds. Now, the hundred year flood is expected every minute. Every European debt negotiation, S&P downgrade, or word floating from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s lips, is expected to trigger the next Lehman Brothers-esque event that will topple the global economy like a chain of dominoes.

Volatility Victims

The few hours of trading that followed the release of the Federal Reserve’s August policy statement is living proof of investors’ edginess. After initially falling approximately -400 points in a 30 minute period late in the day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average then climbed over +600 points in the final hour of trading, before experiencing another -400 point drop in the first hour of trading the next day. Many of the day traders and speculators playing with the explosively leveraged exchange traded funds (e.g., TNA, TZA, FAS, FAZ), suffered the consequences related to the panic selling and buying that comes with a VIX (Volatility Index) that climbed about +175% in 17 days. A VIX reading of 44 or higher has only been reached nine times in the last 25 years (source: Don Hays), and is normally associated with significant bounce-backs from these extreme levels of pessimism. Worth noting is the fact that the 2008-2009 period significantly deteriorated more before improving to a more normalized level.

Keys to a Good Night’s Sleep

The nature of the latest debt ceiling negotiations and associated Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the United States hurt investor psyches and did little to boost confidence in an already tepid economic recovery. Investors may have had some difficulty catching some shut-eye during the recent market turmoil, but here are some tips on how to sleep comfortably.

• Panic is Not a Strategy: Panic selling (and buying) is not a sustainable strategy, yet we saw both strategies in full force last week. Emotional decisions are never the right ones, because if they were, investing would be quite easy and everyone would live on their own personal island. Rather than panic-sell, investments should be looked at like goods in a grocery store – successful long-term investors train themselves to understand it is better to buy goods when they are on sale. As famed growth investor Peter Lynch said, “I’m always more depressed by an overpriced market in which many stocks are hitting new highs every day than by a beaten-down market in a recession.”

• Long-Term is Right-Term: Everybody would like to retire at a young age, and once retired, live like royalty. Admirable goals, but both require bookoo bucks. Unless you plan on inheriting a bunch of money, or working until you reach the grave, it behooves investors to pull that money out from under the mattress and invest it wisely. Let’s face it, entitlements are going to be reduced in the future, just as inflation for food, energy, medical, leisure and other critical expenses continue eroding the value of your savings. One reason active traders justify their knee-jerk actions and derogatory description of long-term investors is based on the stagnant performance of U.S. equity markets over the last decade. Nonetheless, the vast number of these speculators fail to recognize a more than tripling in average values in markets like Brazil, India, China, and Russia over similar timeframes. Investing is a global game. If you do not have a disciplined, systematic long-term investment strategy in place, you better pray you don’t lose your job before age 70 and be prepared to eat Mac & Cheese while working as a Wal-Mart (WMT) greeter in your 80s.

• Diversification: Speaking of sleep, the boring topic of diversification often puts investors to sleep, but in periods like these, the power of diversification becomes more evident than ever. Cash, metals, and certain fixed income instruments were among the investments that cushioned the investment blow during the 2008-2009 time period. Maintaining a balanced diversified portfolio across asset classes, styles, size, and geographies is crucial for investment survival. Rebalancing your portfolio periodically will ensure this goal is achieved without taking disproportionate sized risks.

• Tailored Plan Matching Risk Tolerance: An 85 year-old wouldn’t go mountain biking on a tricycle, and a 10 year-old shouldn’t drive a bus to his fifth grade class. Sadly, in volatile times like these, many investors figure out they have an investment portfolio mismatched with their goals and risk tolerance. The average investor loves to take risk in up-markets and shed risk in down-markets (risk in this case defined as equity exposure). Regrettably, this strategy is designed exactly backwards for long-term investors. Historically, actual risk, the probability of permanent losses, is much lower during downturns; however, the perceived risk by average investors is viewed much worse. Indeed, recessions have been the absolute best times to purchase risky assets, given our 11-for-11 successful track record of escaping post World War II downturns. Could this slowdown or downturn last longer than expected and lead to more losses? Absolutely, but if you are planning for 10, 20, or 30 years, in many cases that issue is completely irrelevant – especially if you are still adding funds to your investment portfolio (i.e., dollar-cost averaging). On the flip side, if an investor is retired and entirely dependent upon an investment portfolio for income, then much less attention should be placed on risky assets like equities.

If you are having trouble sleeping, then one of two things is wrong: 1.) You are taking on too much risk and should cut your equity exposure; and/or 2.) You do not understand the risk you are taking. Volatile times like these are great for reevaluating your situation to make sure you are properly positioned to meet your financial goals. Talking heads on TV will tell you this time is different, but the truth is we have been through worse times (see History Never Repeats, but Rhymes), and lived to tell the tale. All this volatility and gloom may create anxiety and cause insomnia, but if you want to quietly sleep through the noise like a content baby, make yourself a long-term financial bed that you can comfortably sleep in during good times and bad. Focusing on the despondent headline of the day, and building a portfolio lacking diversification will only lead to panic selling/buying and results that would keep a baby up all night crying.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including emerging market ETFs) and WMT, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in TNA, TZA, FAS, FAZ, 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.

August 13, 2011 at 8:18 am 3 comments

Rating Agencies to Government: Go Back to College!

Remember those days as a young adult, when you were a starving student in college, doing everything you possible could in your power to not run out of money (OK, if you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, just play along).  You know what I’m talking about… Corn Flakes for breakfast, PB&J for lunch, and maybe splurge with a little Mac & Cheese or Top Ramen for dinner. Well, the rating agencies, especially Standard & Poor’s (S&P) with their long-term sovereign credit rating downgrade on the U.S. from AAA rated to AA+ rated, are signaling our U.S. government to cut back on the champagne and caviar spending and go back to living like a college student.

Rent-A-Cops Assert Power

The rating agencies may have been asleep at the switch during the tech bubble (Enron & WorldCom) and the financial crisis of 2008-2009 (i.e., ratings of toxic mortgage backed securities), but they are doing their best to reassert themselves as credible security rating entities. By the way, as long as S&P has some wise critical advice for the U.S. government regarding fiscal responsibility, I have a suggestion for S&P: When providing a fresh ratings downgrade, please limit error estimations to less than $2,000,000,000,000.00 – this is exactly what S&P did in its ratings downgrade. Time will tell whether S&P can maintain its role as credit market policeman or will be mocked like those unarmed, overweight rent-a-cops you see at the shopping mall.

In reality, S&P’s moves represent little fundamental change, especially since these moves have been signaled for months (S&P initially lowered its outlook on the U.S. to negative on 4/18/11). I know there will be some that panic at this announcement (won’t be the first or last time), but should anyone really be shocked by an independent entity telling the U.S. government they are spending too much money and hold too much debt? If my memory serves me correctly, Americans have been screaming S&P’s same message for years – I think the rise of the Tea-Party, the results of the mid-term elections, and the tone of the debt ceiling debate may indicate a few people have caught onto this unsustainable fiscal disaster.

Two Simple Choices

As I have said for some time, these horrendously difficult issues will get resolved. The only question is who will resolve this negligent fiscal behavior? There are only two simple answers: 1) Politicians can proactively chip away at the problem with solutions my first grader has already identified (spend less and/or increase revenue); or 2) Financial Market Vigilantes can rip apart financial markets and force borrowing costs to the stratosphere. Option number one is preferable for everyone, and for those that don’t understand option number two, I refer you to Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Spain.

If you’re getting sick of listening to debt and spending issues now, I will gently remind you this is an election year, so the nauseating debates are only going to get worse from here. I encourage everyone to make a game of this fiscal discussion, and do enough homework to the point you have informed, convicted opinions about our country’s fiscal situation. Unlike in periods past, when Americans could take a nap and ride the U.S. gravy train to prosperity, the ultra-competitive globalized game no longer allows us to rest on our laurels of being the world’s strongest superpower. There are a lot more people playing in our game outside our borders, and many of them are stronger, faster, smarter, and more efficient. Decisions being made today, tomorrow, and over the next year will have profound effects on millions of Americans, myself included. So as the government prioritizes spending programs and debates methods of raising revenue, I advise you to go back to your college days and decide whether you prefer Corn Flakes, PB&J, and Mac & Cheese. If voters don’t pressure politicians into doing the right thing, then we’ll all be collecting food stamps from the Financial Market Vigilantes.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

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 MHP, 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.

August 6, 2011 at 11:19 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. 

www.Sidoxia.com

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

Gravity Takes Hold in May

Warner Bros. picture of Wile E. Coyote’s failed apprehension of Roadrunner

Wile E. Coyote, the bumbling, roadrunner-loving carnivore from Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes series spends a lot of time in the air chasing his fine feathered prey. Unfortunately for Mr. Coyote his genetic make-up and Acme purchases could not cure the ills caused by gravity (although user error was the downfall of Wile E’s effective Bat-Man flying outfit purchase). Just as gravity hampered the coyote’s short-term objectives, so too has gravity hampered the equity markets’ performance this May.

So far the adage of “Sell in May and walk away” has been the correct course of action. Just one day prior to the end of the month, the Dow Jones Industrial and S&P 500 indexes were on pace of recording the worst May decline in almost 50 years. If the -6.8% monthly decline in the S&P and the -7.8% drop in the S&P remains in place through the end of the month, these declines would mark the worst performance in a May month since 1962.  

Should we be surprised by the pace and degree of the recent correction? Flash crash and Greece worries aside, any time a market increases +70-80% within a year, investors should not be  caught off guard by a subsequent 10%+ correction. In fact corrections are a healthy byproduct of rapid advances. Repeated boom-bust cycles are not market characteristics most investors crave.  

It was a volatile, choppy month of trading for the month as measured by the Volatility Index (VIX). The fear gauge more than doubled to a short-run peak of around 46, up from a monthly low close of about a reading of 20, before settling into the high 20s at last close. Digesting Greek sovereign debt issues, an impending Chinese real estate bubble bursting, budget deficits, government debt, and financial regulatory reform will determine if elevated volatility will persist. Improving macroeconomic indicators coupled with reasonable valuations appear to be factoring in a great deal of these concerns, however I would not be surprised if this schizophrenic trading will persist until we gain certainty on the midterm elections. As Wile E. Coyote has learned from his roadrunner chasing days, gravity can be painful – just as investors realized gravity in the equity markets can hurt too. All the more reason to cushion the blow to your portfolio through the use of diversification in your portfolio (read Seesawing Through Chaos article).  

Happy long weekend!  

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 positions in TWX, VXX, 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.

May 28, 2010 at 1:24 am Leave a comment

Ball & Chaining the Rating Agencies

After sifting through the rubble of the financial crisis of 2008-2009, Congress is spreading the blame liberally across various constituencies, including the almighty rating agencies (think of Moody’s [MCO], Standard & Poor’s [MHP], and Fitch). The Senate recently added a proposed amendment to the financial regulation bill that would establish a government appointed panel to select a designated credit rating agency for certain debt deals. The proposal is designed to remove the inherent conflict of interest of debt issuers – such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), Morgan Stanley (MS), UBS, and others – shopping around for higher ratings in exchange for higher payments to the banks. The credit rating agencies are not satisfied with being weighed down with a ball and chain, and apparently New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is sympathetic with the agencies. Cuomo recently subpoenaed Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Morgan Stanley, UBS and five other banks to see whether the banks misled credit-rating services about mortgage-backed securities.

Slippery Slope of Government Intervention

Many different professions, inside and outside the financial industry, provide critical advice in exchange for monetary compensation. In many industries there are inherent conflicts of interest between the professional and the end-user, and a related opinion provided by the pro may result in a bad outcome. If government intervention is the appropriate solution in the rating agency field, then maybe we should answer the following questions related to other fields before we rush to regulation:

  • Should the government control which auditors check the books of every American company because executives may opportunistically shop around for more lenient reviews of their financials?
  • Perhaps the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) should dictate which investment bank should underwrite an Initial Public Offering (IPO) or other stock issuance?
  • Maybe the government should decide which medicine or surgery should be administered by a doctor because they received funding or donations from a drug and device company?  

Where do you draw the line? Is the amendment issued by Al Franken (Senator of Minnesota) a well thought out proposal to improve the conflicts of interest, or is this merely a knee-jerk reaction to sock it some greedy Wall Street-ers and solidify additional scapegoats in the global financial meltdown?

In addition to including a controversial government-led rating agency selection process, the transforming regulatory reform bill also includes a dramatic change to ban “naked” credit default swaps (CDS). As I’ve written in the past, derivatives of all types can be used to hedge (protect) or speculate (e.g., naked CDS).  Singling out a specific derivative product and strategy like naked CDSs is like banning all Browning 9x19mm Hi-Power pistols, but allowing hundreds of other gun-types to be sold and used. Conceptually, proper use of a naked CDS by a trader is the same as the proper use of a gun by a recreational hunter (see my derivatives article).

Solutions

Rather than additional government intervention into the rating agency and derivative fields, perhaps additional disclosure, transparency, capital requirements, and harsher penalties can be instituted. There will always be abusers, but as we learned from the collapse of Arthur Andersen on the road to Enron’s bankruptcy, there can be  cruel consequences to bad actors. If investment banks misrepresent opinions, laws can lead to severe results also. Take Jack Grubman, hypester of Worldcom stock, who was banned for life from the securities industry and forced to pay $15 million in fines. Or Henry Blodget, who too was banned from the securities industry and paid millions in fines, not to mention the $200 million in fraud damages Merrill Lynch was forced to pay.

At the end of the day, enough disclosure and transparency needs to be made available to investors so they can make their own decisions. Those institutional investors that piled into these toxic, mortgage-related securities and lost their shirts because of over-reliance on the rating agencies’ evaluations deserve to lose money. If these structures were too complex to understand, then this so-called sophisticated institutional investor base should have balked from participation. Of course, if the banks or credit agencies misrepresented the complex investments, then sure, those intermediaries should suffer the full brunt of the law.

Although weighing down the cash-rich credit rating agencies (and CDS creators) with ball and chain regulations may appease the populist sentiment in the short-run, the reduction in conflicts of interest might be overwhelmed by the unintended consequences. Now if you’ll please excuse me, I’m going to do my homework on a naked CDS related to a AAA-rated synthetic CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligation).

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 positions in MCO, MHP, GS, MS, JPM, UBS, BAC, T or 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.

May 17, 2010 at 12:42 am Leave a comment

Misery Loves Company – Ruler Waffling

Ruler

Besides using a ruler for measuring small distances and rapping disobedient knuckles, the wooden instrument can also be used for extrapolating trends. This ruler is a very convenient tool when rigorous analysis is a second choice.

Misery loves company, so the often maligned pool of inaccurate Wall Street equity analysts are happy to share the limelight with their trend leaning junk bond analyst cousins. As default rate expectations have bounced around like a jack rabbit post the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, these bond forecasters have been caught flat-footed.

Reuters highlighted the backpedaling of Standard & Poor’s recent forecast changes:

“S&P said it now expects defaults to decline to 6.9 percent a year from now from a September rate of 10.8 percent. On Oct 2, it had said it expected defaults to escalate to 13.9 percent by August 2010.”

 

For a lazy analyst, extrapolation is a good fall-back strategy. Sticking your neck out by looking out further into the future or grasping the concept of reversion to the mean can be difficult and politically risky from a job retention perspective. It’s much easier to constantly hug current trends because it then becomes virtually impossible to be wrong.

Just as the rating agencies contributed to the subprime and auction rate securities (ARS) debacles by rubber stamping their AAA approvals last year through the financial crisis, so too have we witnessed the failure of bond analysts to properly analyze junk bond default rates.

Hopefully the narrowing of credit spreads is a leading indicator for economic improvement, but regardless the number and amount of high yield deals hitting the market is flowing heavily. The Wall Street Journal recently reported billions of junk bond deals being priced this week and next, including the $500 million Crown Castle International’s 10-year deal; $200 million Mohegan Tribal Gaming’s eight-year bonds; $325 million in Headwaters Inc.’s five-year notes; and over $2.4 billion of bonds from four other borrowers, including Boise Paper Holdings, Reynolds Group, Murray Energy Corp. and Universal City Development.

As larger companies are freely tapping the capital markets for capital, it’s becoming more and more evident that small businesses are having tougher and tougher times accessing credit, thanks in large part to banks hunkering down and reducing lending. Reference the flattening commercial bank credit curve chart provided by the Federal Reserve System:

Commercial Credit 

As we watch the credit flow drama unfold in these uncertain economic times, don’t panic if you wondering what will happen next. Just reach into the desk drawer and pull out the favorite tool of Wall Street equity and junk bond analysts…the righteous ruler.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management and its client accounts do have direct positions in HYG shares 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 22, 2009 at 2:00 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.

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? 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. 

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.  

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


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