A Cheat Sheet for Common Non-GAAP Adjustments – Part II
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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. MLP’s 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.
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 is 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.
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.
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit adamdschwab.com for more investing articles and podcasts.