A Cheat Sheet for Common Non-GAAP Adjustments – Part I
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.
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.
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 employee’s 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.
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 declines as competing technologies render the current assets obsolete over time. Often, in a much quicker timeframe than the actual amortization period. Exercise extreme caution if a company claims their technology assets don’t depreciate or need reinvestment.
On the flipside, 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.
Look for Part 3 of this series next week on Freezing Assets.