Disaggregation is key to understanding performance

Limited disaggregation of income and expense items with different characteristics impairs investors’ ability to assess and forecast performance. Recent proposals by the IASB for a new disaggregation principle and related disclosures of ‘unusual’ items will help. However, in our view, they do not go far enough.

The IASB also proposes to include management alternative performance measures (non-GAAP or non-IFRS) within audited financial statements. We welcome this. Additional subtotals can be helpful if they are clearly described and what is omitted is clearly identified. What would also help is to ban the use of labels such as ‘underlying’, ‘core’ and ‘recurring’.

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Analysing complex capital structures – perpetual bonds

Many companies look beyond straight debt and ordinary shares when raising finance, with capital structures increasingly including an array of complex financial instruments. This presents challenges for investors, particularly when analysing performance and leverage.

We investigate the effects of one form of ‘hybrid’ financing – perpetual super-subordinated bonds – where securities with debt-like features may be reported as equity in financial statements. Recent proposals by the IASB to improve transparency in reporting these instruments and other complex capital structures will help investors.

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Why IFRS 18 is good news for investors

The IASB has issued its new international standard for the presentation of financial statements – IFRS 18. Changes that will benefit investors include a prescribed operating-investing-financing structure for the income statement, new defined subtotals, additional disaggregation, and a more relevant cash flow presentation.

IFRS 18 will better align financial reporting with equity analysis and provide additional and more comparable data to facilitate that analysis, including data that should help investors to forecast performance and assess risk.

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No insight for investors from equity accounting

The underlying rationale and conceptual basis for the equity method of accounting for investments in associates is unclear. Equity accounting can be regarded as either the cost-based measurement of an investment or as a quasi (one-line) form of consolidation – but neither is particularly helpful for investors.

We explain the limitations of the equity method and advocate measuring all investments in associates at fair value, consistent with other minority equity holdings. This results in a more relevant basis for investors to include investments in associates in their analysis and valuation.  

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Negative goodwill may not mean a bargain purchase

Acquisitions of struggling banks are producing record profits due to negative goodwill ‘bargain purchase gains’. The Q1 2023 earnings of Citizens Bank was $9,504m compared with $264m in the same period last year, largely due to its Silicon Valley Bank deal.

Negative goodwill arising from business combinations is reported as an immediate profit under both IFRS and US GAAP; but does it really represent an increase in shareholder value? We explain the meaning of negative goodwill, its relevance for investors and why we think (at best) only part should be recognised as a profit.

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Fair values and interest rate risk – Silicon Valley Bank

Losses caused by the rise in interest rates in 2022, coupled with inadequate interest rate risk management, appear to be the trigger for the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank. However, most of the losses on its fixed rate assets were not recognised in either the balance sheet or in profit and loss.

We discuss why investors may have thought the bank was better hedged against interest rate risk than turned out to be the case, and show how 2022 profit would have been very different when measured on a full fair value basis – we estimate a pre-tax loss of $14.4bn rather than a US GAAP reported profit of $2.2bn.

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Do not use non-GAAP metrics in equity valuation

A forecast of profit is used for both valuation multiples and as a starting point in deriving free cash flow for DCF valuations. But should you use a forecast of the reported IFRS or GAAP measure, or a forecast of the adjusted non-IFRS or non-GAAP alternative performance measure (APM) presented by management? 

We think equity valuations should be based on forecasts of reported IFRS or GAAP earnings (albeit with some adjustment related to intangible assets). Forecasts of management APMs can be useful for understanding trends in performance but using these in equity valuation is likely to introduce a structural bias.

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IFRS 17 Insurance – More comparability and new insights

IFRS 17 will result in significant changes to insurance company financial statements as of next year. Benefits for investors include a more relevant top line, consistent profit recognition, source of earnings analysis, updated assumptions, value of new business disclosures and an end to confusing asset-based discount rates.

We think IFRS 17 will make insurance financial statements accessible to the broader investment community rather than just insurance specialists. However, compromises and options in the new standard, such as the option to use OCI, will make analysing the new information not as straightforward as we might hope.

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EBITDA-AL: More letters but no more insight

In the alphabet soup of investment metrics, a new variant on EBITDA has appeared in some IFRS based company presentations – EBITDA-AL, with the ‘AL’ meaning ‘after leases’. But does the new measure make any sense? And why use EBITDA-AL rather than the established EBITDA or EBITDAR?

All ‘earnings-before’ measures create comparability issues, omit key components of operating performance, and should be interpreted with caution. We think EBITDA-AL is worse than EBITDA, which never was that useful in the first place. Better to use EBIT, EBITA or EBITDA-AMCE, where maintenance capital expenditure replaces D&A.

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Non-GAAP is more than earnings before bad stuff

Non-GAAP measures can be useful for investors, but they are also controversial. Some argue that certain non-GAAP adjustments are unacceptable and should not be permitted. This recently happened to US company MicroStrategy, where the SEC required it to amend the presentation of cryptocurrency gains and losses.

We do not agree with the SEC approach and believe MicroStrategy gives valid reasons for its cryptocurrency non-GAAP adjustment. We have less sympathy with other aspects of the company’s non-GAAP earnings calculation. However, we believe that the disaggregation that results from all non-GAAP disclosures generally benefits investors.

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Non-controlling interest and NCI put options

Although accounting for non-controlling interest (NCI) is generally relatively straightforward, including it in equity valuation is more challenging. The reverse is true for NCI that is subject to a put option. In this case the accounting is complex, with different and potentially inconsistent classification and measurement, but useful additional data is available for valuation.

We discuss the accounting and valuation implications of non-controlling interests and use the put option written by LVMH over the non-controlling interest in its subsidiary Moët Hennessy to illustrate the challenges and opportunities for investors.

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Missing intangible assets distorts return on capital

The inconsistent and incomplete recognition of intangible assets in financial statements distorts performance metrics. Invested capital and profit are understated – to what extent depends on the business dynamics and nature and source of investment in intangibles. The combined effect is generally to overstate return on capital.

With the ever-increasing importance of intangible assets, few companies are unaffected by this accounting problem. We suggest adjustments to help your analysis, provide an interactive model to illustrate, and calculate an intangible asset adjusted return for Amazon.

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Enterprise to equity bridge – more fair value required

A largely cost-based measurement approach in financial reporting generally provides sufficient information about operating ‘flows’ to enable investors to apply enterprise value based DCF (or DCF proxy) valuation models. However, fair values are crucial for the ‘bridge’ from enterprise to equity value.

Fair values are available for many, but not all, of the assets, liabilities and equity claims that should be included in the enterprise to equity bridge. We explain the limitations of current financial reporting and where you may need to do further analysis.

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Bitcoin: The financial reporting challenge for investors

Whether you view Bitcoin as a modern-day tulip bulb mania bubble, that will inevitably burst, or an unstoppable development in finance, one thing is certain, companies are increasingly purchasing this asset. But how do Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies affect reported financial position and performance metrics?

There are no accounting rules dedicated to cryptocurrencies. Under current US GAAP and, usually under IFRS, intangible asset accounting is applied.  We use the reporting by MicroStrategy to illustrate why this does not provide the right information for investors and explain how you should include cryptocurrency assets in your analysis.

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Pension leverage under IFRS and US GAAP

US GAAP and IFRS present the effects of pension leverage differently in financial statements, notably leverage arising from pension fund asset allocation. This complicates the comparison and interpretation of performance measures and valuation multiples.

We use Delta Air Lines to illustrate the positive impact of the US GAAP ‘expected return’ approach on reported profit, including the effect of optimistic return assumptions. If Delta had applied the IFRS ‘net interest’ approach we estimate that a ‘gain’ of $594m would have been excluded from profit and loss and instead reported in OCI.

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Most likely profit may not be the most relevant profit

Analyst forecasts may not take into account the distribution, particularly the skewness, of potential outcomes. A forecast of the most likely profit can significantly differ from the more relevant probability weighted expected value.

Whether a forecast is a mean or a mode is also important in financial reporting. Most IFRS standards, including IFRS 9 regarding loan impairments, require a probability weighted expected value; however, this is not universal. In some cases, such as IAS 37 regarding provisions, the requirements are unclear.

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Forecasting ‘sticky’ stock-based compensation

Stock-based compensation grants to employees in 2020 are likely to be affected by the changes to share prices and reduction in profitability currently being experienced by many companies. However, the impact on the related expense and on reported profit may not be what you might expect.

For most companies, stock-based compensation is a ‘sticky’ expense that is only indirectly or partially affected by current period changes. Limited disclosure in financial statements makes forecasting this expense a challenge. You should focus on the value of new grants, the vesting period and the effect of potential changes to assumptions. Our interactive model will help.

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Operating profit – improved presentation coming soon

Most investors make extensive use of operating profit to assess company performance and as a starting point for valuation. But operating profit, like many company-provided subtotals, is not defined by IFRS; it is largely up to companies to decide what subtotals to include and even what to call them. However, the IASB may soon bring an end to this operating profit ‘free for all’.

The proposal will lead to significant changes to the presentation of financial statements, notably the income statement, and end the current diversity in presentation of income from associates and joint ventures. We examine some of the changes and the impact on financial analysis and valuation methods.

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Don’t rely on APMs, disaggregate IFRS

Alternative performance measures (APMs) can be helpful for investors, but not necessarily the figure itself. It is the disaggregation of performance that is the real benefit. Focusing solely on adjusted measures means you will miss important aspects of profitability.

We explain how you can use APMs to better understand performance, but without missing key elements. In our view this approach would provide a better basis for investor forecasts, as we demonstrate by disaggregating the IFRS earnings of GlaxoSmithKline.

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Dot-com bubble accounting still going strong – Tesla

Some 20 years ago the dot-com bubble was in full swing. A feature of many technology companies at the time, and arguably a factor contributing to the bubble, was not expensing the significant amounts of stock options granted to employees.

Today stock-based compensation is included in IFRS and GAAP profit measures. However, many companies still exclude this item from key performance metrics provided to investors. Surely it is time for this practice to stop? We use the alternative performance measures given by Tesla to illustrate.

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When investors need to restate liabilities – EDF

In measuring its €40bn French nuclear decommissioning liability, EDF applies a 10-year historical ‘sliding average’ discount rate to a current estimate of cash flows. In our view, this leads to an out of date (and at present understated) liability that you should not use in your analysis, even though the approach is deemed to comply with IFRS.

Smoothing out the effects of discount rate changes may reduce apparent volatility, but it does not help investors. Balance sheets should include realistic and fully up to date estimates of the present value of decommissioning and other similar obligations.

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Investors need fair value, not fake value

Equity investments currently reported at fair value could be measured at cost or some other ‘fake value’ in EU companies’ financial statements, depending on the outcome of a European Commission consultation.

There seems to be a never-ending debate in Europe about fair value measurement, particularly regarding equity investments. In our view any move to change the current financial reporting requirements would be detrimental for users of financial statements.

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