Generally Accepted Accounting Standards (GAAP)

I understand and appreciate the need for rigorous accounting standards and I appreciate that our financial system and our capital markets in the US enforce the use of generally accepted accounting standards (GAAP) for the reporting of company financial information. Without standards rigorously applied, investors would not be able to understand what is going on in the companies. That would be awful.

But when I read Gretchen Morgenson’s recent article in the New York Times accusing companies of “spinning losses into profits” my eyes rolled.

The truth is the the accountants who run the accounting standards have forced companies into reporting their financials in a certain way that neither the companies nor the sophisticated investors who own many of these companies’ shares believe accurately represents the financial condition of the reporting companies.  Gretchen quotes this stat in her piece:

According to a recent study in The Analyst’s Accounting Observer, 90 percent of companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index reported non-GAAP results last year, up from 72 percent in 2009.

That sure feels like the market speaking. When 90% of your customers order the scrambled eggs differently than you normally serve them that tells you something.

My pet issue is stock based compensation. When a company issues options to an employee, accounting standards require that the option be valued (usually by a formula called Black Scholes) and expensed over the vesting period. That sounds reasonable. But the truth is that that option may end up being worth nothing. Or it may end up being worth 10x the value that it was expensed at. By taking out the stock based comp expenses and reporting an “adjusted EBITDA” number that does not include it, companies are giving investors an idea of what the earnings power of the company is without this theoretical expense. And that stock based compensation expense is a non-cash expense meaning that even though it theoretically costs the company something, it is not paid in cash but in dilution of the total number of shares outstanding.

This is not a cut and dried issue. Different investors will approach it differently depending on whether they care about cash flow, long term dilution, or something else. But the accountants who control the accounting standards board require a certain way of presenting these numbers and that is that.

So investors and the reporting companies offer other ways of looking at these accounting issues. That is not bad. That is not spinning. That is transparency and it is good.