With the earnings season upon us we now go through the same dog and pony show. Companies report earnings, then the success of those earnings are based mainly on whether or not they beat consensus analyst’s estimates. Curiously enough, many often beat by one penny. What methods do they possibly use to beat by a penny per share?
Prior to earnings, analysts tend to be busy estimating what earnings they think will be reported. Their estimates are based on guidance from the company itself, economic conditions and their own independent models and valuation techniques.
Companies prepare their accounting using generally accepted accounting principles, also referred to as GAAP. GAAP, are a set of rules that encompass the details, complexities, and legalities of business and corporate accounting. GAAP are controlled by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), a non-governmental entity. The FASB creates specific guidelines that company accountants should follow when compiling and reporting information for financial statements or auditing purposes. GAAP is not law, and there is nothing illegal about violations of its rules unless those violations happen to coincide with other laws. Today, all 50 state governments prepare their financial reports according to GAAP. While a little less than half of them officially require local governments to adhere to GAAP.
However, more and more, companies are finding that by following a standardized set of GAAP rules, their earnings often come out less than attractive. So, over the years corporate accountants have become more and more creative through the use of “non-GAAP” methods to improve their bottom lines.
A study published by Audit Analytics noted that 96 percent of S&P 500 companies used non-GAAP measures in earnings releases during the fourth quarter of 2016. In addition, a study published by FactSet indicated that for the first quarter of 2017, 63 percent of the companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average reported non-GAAP earnings per share and that, on average, the difference between the GAAP and non-GAAP earnings per share was approximately 54 percent. The most common adjustments were found to be restructuring charges, acquisition-related items, stock compensation costs, and, to a lesser extent, debt costs and legal costs.
As companies battle to present themselves as profitable, non-GAAP measures are becoming the norm as the disparity between GAAP and non-GAAP results grows larger and larger. So if you think you are going to get the true story from a company’s statements or earnings reports, think again.
Off-balance sheet financing is another method of non-GAAP financial engineering. A business tries to keep certain assets and liabilities off its balance sheet in order to present to the investment community a cleaner balance sheet than would otherwise be the case. It does so by engaging in transactions that are designed to shift the legal ownership of certain transactions to other entities. The transactions are designed to sidestep the reporting requirements of the applicable accounting framework, such as GAAP or IFRS. So, therefore, considered non-GAAP.
Off-balance sheet financing played an important role in the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. Through the use of off-balance sheet entity ‘Repo 105’, Lehman was able to move $50 billion of debt off of their balance sheet, making them appear more financially stable before the end of the quarter. Since it was classified as a repurchase agreement, it was ‘bought back’ after the reporting period. When the debt was originally moved off-balance sheet, the bank recorded the debt as a ‘sale’ and booked the $50 billion as revenue. This type of accounting manipulation contributed to the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history, wiping out the life savings of thousands of employees of the bank.
Adjusted EBITDA is another non-GAAP financial measure that has gained a lot of popularity. Speaking on Jim Grant’s Current Yield Podcast, Adam Cohen, founder of Covenant Review, stated, “Some version of adjusted EBITDA is quite common, but we are seeing things turn into absolute fantasy land.” He took a recent example using the company WeWork, currently valued at roughly $47 Billion, with a stated annualized revenue of $2.5 billion. Cohen explained that the WeWork 2017 income statement started with a net loss of $933 Million. Once they got themselves to adjusted EBITDA, they reduced that to a loss of $193 Million, however since they wanted to sell a bond yield, this wasn’t good enough, so they invented something called “adjusted EBITDA before growth investments” but that still wasn’t good enough, so they invented a third version called “Community adjusted EBITDA,” which at what point they achieved a positive $233 Million community adjusted EBITDA. That is a $1.1 Billion swing from net loss to profit, which is more than the amount of revenues they booked that year.
As an update to this example, the Financial Times just reported on March 26th, 2019, “WeWork bond prices slipped on Tuesday after the provider of shared office space said that its losses had more than doubled from a year earlier, as the company ploughed money into a breakneck expansion that has captivated the real estate industry.”
So, as a word of caution to those investing in the next potential Lehman, as all these fairy tale companies go public, and as the earnings season takes off, “MIND THE GAAP.”