,

Non-GAAP measures: Do they provide helpful insights or hide the “bad stuff”?

Many companies, especially in tech, supplement their income statement produced under generally accepted accounting principles with a non-GAAP income statement. It’s a practice that has proliferated in recent years as companies want to focus attention on the underlying “run rate” of the business and feel pressured to copy what their competitors are doing. Critics label non-GAAP measures as companies presenting “income before the bad stuff.” It’s true that presenting financials on a non-GAAP basis often has a major impact on the bottom line presented, by doubling a profit margin or turning a loss into a profit (as shown in our chart below).

Does non-GAAP reporting mean a company is hiding poor performance? Or is it providing investors with more information for judging the health of the business?

On balance, more disclosure is usually better. When companies present non-GAAP income statements in a thoughtful way and in good faith, investors will usually prefer the additional information and use the non-GAAP income to calculate P/E valuations. Note that most investment analysts report and focus on non-GAAP results. And the Securities and Exchange Commission has accepted their use as well, as long as the information is not misleading. The regulator outlines how and when companies can share non-GAAP figures with Regulation G.

So non-GAAP income statements look like they are here to stay. Let’s look at the most common areas where companies adjust GAAP numbers to give non-GAAP measures and why such measures have become accepted by both companies and investors.

Stock compensation: These are charges based on employee stock options and purchases that rely on theoretical models of their worth. Probably the most commonly listed adjustment to GAAP numbers, this charge is a lightning rod for criticism that GAAP has become overly conceptual and less relevant. As my colleague Stephen Ambler points out in his blog post “Stock compensation rules mask true operating performance,” stock comp charges are non-cash and can vary significantly depending on stock price and model assumptions, making it near impossible to compare two similar companies. Also, if the stock price declines, the company must continue recording the charges, which were based on the grant date value, even though the options have no value to the employees or to the company from a retention point of view.

Amortization of acquired intangibles: GAAP accounting for acquisitions requires the acquiring company to value the intangible assets of the acquired entity, other than goodwill, at fair value and amortize them over their useful lives. On one hand, the acquiring company paid hard cash or used its valuable stock to acquire these assets, and just as companies depreciate the purchase price of equipment they use in production under GAAP, they also should amortize their acquired intangible assets. They are matching cost with use over time. On the other hand, the amortization is a non-cash charge that the acquired business wouldn’t have shown on its own. To assess the sum of the underlying businesses, it is useful to show amortization removed.

Restructuring: These charges include such items as severance, facility and equipment write-offs, and contract termination costs tied to the resizing or closing of some part of a business. CFOs would prefer to keep the costs of these non-recurring events separate from the ongoing business’s results. Companies do need to be careful, though, that these “non-recurring” charges don’t recur every year or two! To mitigate abuse, Reg G sets rules for what is non-recurring — basically, it is something that hasn’t happened two years before the reporting date and is unlikely to happen in the next two years.

We commonly see the non-GAAP income statement remove other measures as well, such as the amounts paid to plaintiffs and attorneys to settle legal disputes or impairments of intangible assets or goodwill. Again, the rationale is to derive an income number that represents the fundamental ongoing business apart from non-cash charges and one-time events. The value to the investor is that these items are shown separately. The investor can value the company on its ongoing business while noting the size and frequency of these non-cash and non-operating charges.

To GAAP or to non-GAAP?
While investors are open and usually welcoming to non-GAAP income statements, they also value consistency. Companies should not use “good news” non-GAAP items and ignore “bad news.” Consider a company that accrues $1 million for a legal settlement and excludes the charge as a non-GAAP measure. It has effectively created a good news item. But if the actual settlement in a subsequent period turns out to be only $800,000, the company should include the $200,000 difference as a non-GAAP item when it comes time to report it. This difference may be perceived as bad news, but this keeps reporting consistent.

In general, companies should use an approach that relies on both full disclosure and moderation. Reg. G requires full disclosure, of course, including a presentation of the most directly comparable GAAP measure with equal or greater prominence as the non-GAAP measure, as well as reconciliation between the two. As for moderation, the investment community will reward companies that practice it, as moderate, thoughtful use of a non-GAAP income statement will build credibility and respect for the company. Finance pros who do these types of evaluations all the time can help you determine when applying non-GAAP makes sense for a particular situation.

Ray Solari is a member of the RoseRyan dream team. He has served as the CFO/VP finance for private companies and managed SEC reporting for public companies. He began his career at Deloitte. 

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *