Earnings Games

JeffMacke© and I usually agree on things. In our fundamental panel discussion at MIM2, I discovered that Macke and I disagree on the issue of management's earnings guidance.

Earnings Games

I wrote this article after Minyans in the Mountains conference that took place in sunny Ojai. I was one of the panelists on fundamental panel where I was in the great company of Herb Greenberg, Fil Zucchi and Jeff Macke.

JeffMacke© and I usually agree on things. (Though he recently mentioned that my four-year-old son will never meet his two and half old daughter.) However, in our fundamental panel discussion at MIM2, I discovered that Macke and I disagree on the issue of management’s earnings guidance. I’ll let Macke state his view, as my attempts would only bleach the colorful (psychedelic) way only Macke can express himself.

Here is my view: Wall Street’s preoccupation with (public) corporate America meeting and beating its earnings forecasts has had a corrosive effect. In fact management’s constant pursuit to appease a short-term minded Wall Street has spread to the ranks of the best of the breed.

This was the response of Costco’s (COST) CEO to an analyst’s question on what he loses sleep over…

“What I lose sleep over, and not a lot frankly, is more as it relates to the short-term stock price movements, because short-term stock price movement is impacted by expectations and the fact that at some point, and perhaps this quarter is a good example that we just announced, that if you look at quarters two, three and four last year we beat those by a little bit.” (CallStreet.com, Transcript of Costco’s Q3 2004 earnings call.)

One would argue, what is the harm? How do a CEO’s sleeping habits impact shareholders? A fair question. The apparent consequences of a CEO caving into the pressure to deliver the goods quarter after quarter came to light when the accounting scandals erupted at then unsuspecting places such as Enron, WorldCom, Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY), HealthSouth, Fannie Mae (FNM) and many others. However, the hidden-to-the-naked-eye impact is morphed much deeper into the ranks of corporate America.

On a daily basis corporate management makes decisions that aim to benefit corporate performance in the short run versus the long run and vice versa. Though not all short-run and long-run decisions are mutually exclusive, to grow a tree (a long-term investment) seeds have to be planted (immediate expense). Management faces these decisions on a daily basis and unfortunately often destroys long-term value to please the short-run junkies.

A couple of years ago I had an informal breakfast meeting with the management of a wholesale club (not Costco). I asked why they did not open more pharmacies at their existing clubs, as the company had plenty of free cash flow and opening pharmacies seemed to improve traffic.

The response I received was: “Yes, pharmacies are a good investment, but it takes a while for them to reach profitability thus we’d be taking a short-term hit on earnings. Therefore, we are stretching the openings out.”

Management has given up a good investment opportunity in favor of the short-term gratification of Wall Street.

During the break between the session at MIM2 (more in later posts), I had the pleasure of speaking with Professor Neal Dingmann (what a great, modest, sharp guy). Neil pointed out that in the oil industry, results choosing short run in lieu of the long run may have grave consequences on the company’s long-term profitability. As companies strive to make the production numbers (and thus revenue) they may abuse the wells and potentially undermine their structural integrity and long-term profitability.

The pressure spills far beyond the retail and oil industries, for example, to a well-known beer maker. According to a CFA friend of mine, (an industry insider) often when the company feels the pressure to deliver the “expected” numbers, it sells beer to liquor stores at large discounts to its regular price. Beer has a limited shelf life (I try to explain this to my wife quite often), thus if it’s not sold by the expiration date it must be returned back to the beer maker. By artificially stuffing inventory channels (demand did not warrant it) the beer company has cut into its next quarter’s sales and increased its expenses as expired product will make it back to the warehouse.

As Macke mentioned in the panel discussion, Sarbanes-Oxley did not fix things because you cannot mandate ethical behavior.

However, it did enrich an army of consultants and imposed a great cost on public companies (especially smaller ones). The true cost of meeting the numbers game is truly impossible to measure, as we’ll never know what projects companies have foregone to please the Street’s crowd.

Over time the Street’s obsession with short-term goals has shifted management focus from creating long-term value for shareholders to becoming Wall Street’s lap dog trying to jump every quarter to the plank that was raised by its masters. I understand the pressure that companies face every quarter, as for many of them a declining stock price means an exodus of option-linked talent. However, there are creative ways to compensate their employees, where stock options and (short-term) stock performance are not the only solution to employee retention.

John Succo noted that Citigroup (C), the world’s largest bank, has fiddled with its asset gains to make its numbers for the quarter. And he asked me, how do I deal with it? I tear a company’s financials apart, trying to arrive to core operating performance–The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly series are a good example of that. In the case of Citigroup, I’d simply avoid the stock (Todd Harrison: not advice) as it’ll consume the whole quarter for me to analyze the very complex financials of the giant conglomerate.

Every time I stumble on a company with complex financial statements, I remind myself that I want to only own companies whose financials (and business) I can understand. To make a rational decision one has to be able to analyze (in a timely manner) the information.

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