How Investors Should Navigate The Non-GAAP Earnings Confusion

by: Adam Schwab, CFA

Summary

Without in-depth knowledge of non-GAAP adjustments, investors are open to deception.

Investors don't need to be a CPA - a quick checklist can reveal the abuses of non-GAAP earnings.

Nothing replaces a deep understanding of company fundamentals to reveal true, economic earnings.

There has been a recent surge in the controversy surrounding non-GAAP earnings. While the debate continues on the proper use of non-GAAP metrics, investors can't expect outside help and need to take control of their own understanding and interpretation of non-GAAP adjustments. Investors can't rely on "guidance" from companies or regulators.

The problems run deeper than the GAAP vs. non-GAAP debate. The actual problem is investor's lack of commitment to a thorough, fundamental understanding of the company. Without adequate understanding, investors will never be able to tell non-GAAP truth from fiction. There is never a hard and fast set of rules to determine the validity of GAAP exceptions. Like any set of standards, there are exceptions and situations that don't fit the model. The extreme doubters of GAAP or non-GAAP miss the point: no system is perfect. It's the investor's responsibility to determine the best representation of economic reality. Blind devotion to SEC guidance, FASB standards, or company management is a dangerous path.

This article will help guide investors into asking the right questions involving non-GAAP metrics. This advice cannot replace actual analysis, but will give investors a better framework for thinking about these issues.

3 Rules to Remember

Always reconcile each adjustment using the GAAP to non-GAAP reconciliation

Regardless of a company's adjustments, investors should always reconcile to GAAP earnings. This figure, required by the SEC, allows investors to see a clean breakdown of non-GAAP adjustments. Unfortunately, that's the easy part. The hard part is understanding what items are legitimate and which are not. Analyze every line item on an individual basis to determine its validity. One or two adjustments account for most of the deviations from GAAP. Unfortunately, there are no clear cut answers on which expenses are legitimate and which are egregious. Materiality depends on the company and industry dynamics. The only way to know is to dive deep into the business and financial statements.

Pull up and compare reconciliations for the past 5 years

Don't limit your analysis to the current year. Compare what "recurring," non-recurring expenses have been consistent over many years. Repeated appearance is clear evidence that these charges are recurring in nature, even as management argues "one-off" or too volatile/unpredictable. In fact, a quick glance at successive reconciliations should show no yearly correlations between line items. Also, understand that the absence of repeated charges doesn't mean one-time charges are legitimate. Evaluate every adjustment on its own merit.

Match the reconciliation to the business model

Serial acquirers should not have their acquisition-related charges excluded. Acquisitions are part of their strategy and the associated expenses are legitimate and recurring. Major problems develop when analysts and management teams guide to high top and bottom line growth without the necessary acquisition spending to support that growth. It's unfortunate that overconfident/aggressive companies and investors permit this mismatch to make valuation, free cash flow, and EPS more impressive. Some quick investor math on the implied ROICs would show an unsustainable level of ROIC into the future.

A Cheat Sheet for Common Adjustments

I've tried to make the case that the legitimacy of non-GAAP measures is dependent on the individual company, the business model, the competitive environment, the management team, etc. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. While that will bother investors who want an easy answer, it's reality. For those investors who want a quick guide to thinking and interpreting non-GAAP measures, I have compiled a quick guide of questions to ask on each topic.

Reorganization/Transition/Restructuring Expenses

Look for a continued history of these charges. The "serial restructuring" company should be obvious by the year-after-year disclosure of the same items. Again, the investor's familiarity with the company and management team will drive the analysis. Restructuring charges were expenses that should have been realized all along in the past. Instead, companies get to kitchen sink these expenses as one-time items. Investors should normalize past profitability by blending the charge through past income statements to get a better gauge of historic profitability. This will lead investors to a better understanding of economic profitability, rather than just ignoring the charges.

Investors need to be realistic in their margin assumptions going forward. While most investors and management teams love to project a never-ending upward trajectory of margin expansion, reality and competition will dictate otherwise. Today, assume that the company you are looking at will likely have their "restructuring moment" sometime in the future, so adjust your understanding and valuation today to avoid getting blindsided in the future.

Options Expense

Why the options debate continues is beyond me. When you give away a claim or an option on company's equity, that's an expense. The argument for comparability has no merit in my mind. If one company is giving away more equity than another, the analysis/valuation should reflect that. Ignoring options expense only drives understanding further away from the truth. Because analysts want their models to be nice and clean, it leads to analysis that is borderline worthless.

Consider this example: if company A is paying its employees salaries at 2x the level of company B, should analysts back out the "extra" salary for comparability sake? I don't think so. If a company chooses to pay more or issue more options, reflect that in their numbers.

Foreign Exchange

Companies with significant foreign operations (over 30% of revenue) should treat F/X movements as natural, recurring expenses/benefits. I understand the desire for comparability, but simply ignoring these movements is ignoring reality. Instead, use the company's disclosures to set a framework for understanding the economic exposure. Given the rapid devaluation in Venezuela, Brazil, Russia, etc., it's paramount to understand that these losses are more often than not real, economic expense, not just some accounting fiction.

In general, ignoring volatile f/x movements because they don't model well will just create more unpleasant surprises for the investors in the future. What matters for investors are the long-term economic results, and if f/x movements are continually part of those results, then include them.

Amortization of Intangible Assets - Customer Relationships/Lists, Patents/Technology, Brands/Trademarks

Amortization of Intangibles is often a large component of non-GAAP earnings and the key is to separate and evaluate each intangible.

Patents and technology intangibles are typically always a true expense. The value of these assets decline as competing technologies render the current assets obsolete over time. Often, in a much quicker time frame than the actual amortization period. Exercise extreme caution if a company claims their technology assets don't depreciate or need reinvestment.

Brands are almost always indefinite and don't need separate reinvestment as ongoing marketing expense and normal reinvestment will support the intangible value into the future.

The same is true with customer relationships. A company will never have to have an annual budget item for customer relationships to maintain that asset. There is one caveat to ignoring brand and customer intangibles expense. Investors must ensure the business is adequately reinvesting in itself to make the case that brand and customer intangibles don't need expensing. If the business is underinvesting, the intangibles will lose their value.

Debt Tender/Retirement

Usually, debt retirement is a one-time event since I rarely see consistent debt retirement in material amounts. The key is to look into the future and try to anticipate these costs in advance and work them into your analysis. If it appears that a debt exchange or swap will have material consequences, it's better to know about it before than after. Again, not a meaningful issue.

Litigation Expense

Depends on the litigious nature of the industry and legal history of the company. For example, constant litigation has hammered big banks since the financial crises. Are these expenses recurring in nature? In banking, I believe they are recurring, but not to the extent of the past five years. Investors would be wise to assume some normal, ongoing expense into the future. The seeds of the next legal war are being planted today, so reserve for them today.

In addition, some companies have one-time, but massive penalties. BP (NYSE:BP) comes to mind. How should investors handle that expense? I would again advise incorporating some reserve expense for future disasters in future cash flows since energy E&P is an unpredictable and volatile endeavor. Of course, this is not an exact science so it will be a subjective guess. But it's more preferable than ignoring these realities and assuming the good times will last.

Asset/Goodwill Impairments

There are two lines of thinking I use as I approach an impairment situation. First, an impairment is nothing more than the final admission and confirmation that a company overpaid on an asset or acquisition in the past. It's simple. They paid too much. Companies will argue that any specific impairment charge will not continue in the future. I agree with them. However, the key is that a company with repeated asset write-downs will likely continue making bad acquisitions and will suffer future impairments. Of course, no company will ever admit to that.

Depreciation

In 99.9% of cases, depreciation is a real expense. If a company is reconciling to EBITDA, that's fine. The issues with EBITDA are another topic. But if a company is adding back depreciation expense to net income, that's a red flag. The common exception is excess depreciation on assets that have longer useful lives than GAAP dictates. This is rare in my experience.

However, company managements will often claim longer useful lives than normal, knowing that the future costs and reinvestment won't hit until the future. MLPs are a great example of trying to push the belief that maintenance capex and associated depreciation is much lower than GAAP suggests. There may be some exceptions, but that's usually pure marketing spin.

Acquisition-related costs

Look over the past 5 to 10 years and see if the company is a serial acquirer. If they are, include acquisition costs in earnings. It's a core part of their strategy, and the costs need to be counted. Check to see if it is a "one-off" acquisition that was not made in place of real capex. Acquisitions are often another form of capex needed by companies to remain competitive. However, most analysts treat them as incremental, instead of replacement investment. How do you tell the difference? Look at the competitive nature of the industry and barriers to entry. Most companies need to continually reinvest just to stay in place. If this is the case, an acquisition is likely a "replacement" style expenditure. In addition, if the growth and earnings expectations of the company are dependent on future acquisitions, the future costs need to be included in company valuation.

Gain/Loss on Sale of Assets

This is one charge that is more likely to be non-recurring since so few companies consistently buy and sell assets on a regular basis. Most of these adjustments have less impact than some other big adjustments, and as long as companies are treating both gains and losses in the same manner, there isn't an issue.

Severance Charges

Just like restructuring charges, these are more recurring in nature than one-off. Many companies I analyze follow a predictable pattern of overexpansion during the good times followed by restructuring/realignment/right-sizing charges in the downtime. So when times are good, especially for cyclical companies like mining and energy, understand those results are likely biased too high. Don't believe the "this is permanently higher" marketing. Investors should focus on a "normalized" earnings approach, as cyclical companies like mining, agriculture, and energy always correct.

Conclusion

Non-GAAP metrics are useful because they enable better fundamental understanding of the core business. It's the investor's job to figure out what is legitimate vs. non-legitimate. It's not the fault of GAAP, FASB, the SEC, or any other regulatory body. They are doing the best they can to create principles and rules to fit all companies. Quite a tough task. The incessant bashing on the faults of GAAP is misplaced. It's just the reality of trying to fit diverse companies into one system. Non-GAAP earnings are not bad, and neither are most managements. What's bad is an investor's blind acceptance of other's ideas without doing the necessary work themselves.

Adam Schwab, CFA, CPA is a partner and portfolio manager at Elgethun Capital Management. Contact Adam at aschwab@elgethuncapital.com

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.