Just like the hit series “House Of Cards,” Wall Street earnings season has become rife with manipulation, deceit and obfuscation that could rival the dark corners of Washington, D.C. From time to time I do an analysis of the previous quarters earnings for the S&P 500 in order to reveal the “quality” of earnings rather than the “quantity” as focused on by Wall Street. One of the most interesting data points continues to the be the extremely low level of “top line” revenue growth as compared to an explosion of the bottom line earnings per share. This is something that I have dubbed “accounting magic” and is represented by the following chart which shows that since 2009 total revenue growth has grown by just 31% while profits have skyrocketed by 253%.
“Since 2000, each dollar of gross sales has been increased into more than $1 in operating and reported profits through financial engineering and cost suppression. The next chart shows that the surge in corporate profitability in recent years is a result of a consistent reduction of both employment and wage growth. This has been achieved by increases in productivity, technology and offshoring of labor. However, it is important to note that benefits from such actions are finite.”
As we enter into the tsunami of earning’s reports for the first quarter of 2014, it will be important to look past the media driven headlines and do your homework. The accounting mechanizations that have been implemented over the last five years, particularly due to the repeal of FASB Rule 157 which eliminated “mark-to-market” accounting, have allowed an ever increasing number of firms to “game” earnings season for their own benefit.
This was confirmed in a recent WSJ article which stated:
Of course, the reason that companies do this is simple: stock based compensation. Today, more than ever, many corporate executives have a large percentage of their compensation tied to company stock performance. A “miss” of Wall Street expectations can lead to a large penalty in the companies stock price.
As shown in the table, it is not surprising to see that 93% of the respondents pointed to “influence on stock price” and “outside pressure” as the reason for manipulating earnings figures.
Note: For fundamental investors this manipulation of earnings skews valuation analysis particularly with respect to P/E’s, EV/EBITDA, PEG, etc. Revenues, which are harder to adjust, may provide truer measures of valuation such as P/SALES and EV/SALES.
So, as we head into earnings season, it is important to be aware of what is real, and what isn’t. Wade Slome brought this into focus recently via the Investing Caffeine blog: where he pointed out four things to look for:
“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.”
For really short term focused traders none of this really matters as price momentum trumps fundamentals. However, for longer term investors who are depending on their “hard earned” savings to generate a “living income” through retirement, understanding the “real” value will mean a great deal. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions, online tips or media advice that will supplant rolling up your sleeves and doing your homework.
As the WSJ article concludes:
“The CFOs in the study named and ranked several red flags.