denny, I tend to defer to this guy:
Too many managements – and the number seems to grow every year – are looking for any means to report, and indeed feature, “adjusted earnings” that are higher than their company’s GAAP earnings. There are many ways for practitioners to perform this legerdemain. Two of their favorites are the omission of “restructuring costs” and “stock-based compensation” as expenses.
Charlie and I want managements, in their commentary, to describe unusual items – good or bad – that affect the GAAP numbers. After all, the reason we look at these numbers of the past is to make estimates of the future. But a management that regularly attempts to wave away very real costs by highlighting “adjusted per-share earnings” makes us nervous. That’s because bad behavior is contagious: CEOs who overtly look for ways to report high numbers tend to foster a culture in which subordinates strive to be “helpful” as well. Goals like that can lead, for example, to insurers underestimating their loss reserves, a practice that has destroyed many industry participants.
Charlie and I cringe when we hear analysts talk admiringly about managements who always “make the numbers.” In truth, business is too unpredictable for the numbers always to be met. Inevitably, surprises occur. When they do, a CEO whose focus is centered on Wall Street will be tempted to make up the numbers.
Let’s get back to the two favorites of “don’t-count-this” managers, starting with “restructuring.” Berkshire, I would say, has been restructuring from the first day we took over in 1965. Owning only a northern textile business then gave us no other choice. And today a fair amount of restructuring occurs every year at Berkshire. That’s because there are always things that need to change in our hundreds of businesses. Last year, as I mentioned earlier, we spent significant sums getting Duracell in shape for the decades ahead.
We have never, however, singled out restructuring charges and told you to ignore them in estimating our normal earning power. If there were to be some truly major expenses in a single year, I would, of course, mention it in my commentary. Indeed, when there is a total rebasing of a business, such as occurred when Kraft and Heinz merged, it is imperative that for several years the huge one-time costs of rationalizing the combined operations be explained clearly to owners. That’s precisely what the CEO of Kraft Heinz has done, in a manner approved by the company’s directors (who include me). But, to tell owners year after year, “Don’t count this,” when management is simply making business adjustments that are necessary, is misleading. And too many analysts and journalists fall for this baloney.
To say “stock-based compensation” is not an expense is even more cavalier. CEOs who go down that road are, in effect, saying to shareholders, “If you pay me a bundle in options or restricted stock, don’t worry about its effect on earnings. I’ll ‘adjust’ it away.”
To explore this maneuver further, join me for a moment in a visit to a make-believe accounting laboratory whose sole mission is to juice Berkshire’s reported earnings. Imaginative technicians await us, eager to show their stuff.
Listen carefully while I tell these enablers that stock-based compensation usually comprises at least 20% of total compensation for the top three or four executives at most large companies. Pay attention, too, as I explain that Berkshire has several hundred such executives at its subsidiaries and pays them similar amounts, but uses only cash to do so. I further confess that, lacking imagination, I have counted all of these payments to Berkshire’s executives as an expense.
My accounting minions suppress a giggle and immediately point out that 20% of what is paid these Berkshire managers is tantamount to “cash paid in lieu of stock-based compensation” and is therefore not a “true” expense. So – presto! – Berkshire, too, can have “adjusted” earnings.
Back to reality: If CEOs want to leave out stock-based compensation in reporting earnings, they should be required to affirm to their owners one of two propositions: why items of value used to pay employees are not a cost or why a payroll cost should be excluded when calculating earnings.
During the accounting nonsense that flourished during the 1960s, the story was told of a CEO who, as his company revved up to go public, asked prospective auditors, “What is two plus two?” The answer that won the assignment, of course, was, “What number do you have in mind?”