Thursday, August 13, 2009

Alternative yardsticks for US earnings tell different stories

Paul Marson is chief investment officer of Lombard Odier. He wrote the following article in today's Financial Times (8/13/2009). It is worth the read because it explains the irrationality behind the financial markets these days. Make no mistake, the upward turn in the market since early March has been propelled by factious perceptions. "Green shoots" are nothing more than code words by politicians and other central economic planners to replace the reality of our situation. The "green shoots" they talk about are merely the consequence of massive fiscal and monetary inflation; they are temporary. In this environment, of course firms are going to report "earnings." Yet, few recognize that these numbers have been massaged and twisted in such a way that value estimates are difficult to ascertain. Against this backdrop, Mr. Marson provides some insigthful comments. Here it is...enjoy.


The US second-quarter earnings season is now ending, apparently on a good note as nearly three-quarters of US companies have beaten consensus expectations. But a closer look at these earnings shows there is cause to be more cautious about the health of corporate America than the headline numbers would suggest. The cloud of euphoria that followed recent results had more to do with extraordinarily low expectations than to any meaningful and lasting improvement in prospects, which still require a rapid recovery in economic activity. This suggests the recent equity rally off the back of these results is overdone.

Every quarter, US companies publish their results under the defined US GAAP accounting rules. These results are labelled "reported earnings". However, the most commonly looked at form of earnings are adjusted "operating earnings" on which companies prefer to focus as they consider these better capture the underlying trend in activity. Adjusted operating earnings exclude non-recurring expenses such as restructuring charges, asset sales gains, major litigation charges, goodwill right downs and other write-offs. While reported earnings are based on strict accounting rules, adjusted operating earnings are at the discretion of companies because there is no defined set of exclusions. Neither measure is perfect but with adjusted operating earnings, exclusions are currently so large that information about the true state of companies (and therefore the market as a whole) is being excluded.

These exclusions have reached the level where the gap between adjusted operating earnings and reported earnings is so wide that they deliver different messages on the state of US corporates.

There is plenty of evidence to show that the exclusions in adjusted operating earnings are not one-off or non-recurring items. Often they contain useful information pointing to weaker cash flows ahead. Messrs Doyle, Lundholm, Soliman, in their "Predictive value of expenses excluded from pro forma earnings" 2003 study found that the three-year return for companies in the top decile of "other exclusions" is 23 per cent lower than for those in the bottom decile for exclusions. One dollar of exclusions in a quarter predicts $4.17 less of cash from operations over the next three years.

Today reported earnings per share for the S&P 500 companies gathered by Standard & Poor's is $7.2 per share, down 91 per cent from the 2007 peak. On an adjusted operating basis, earnings are $61.2, down 34 per cent from the 2007 peak. This $54 gap is a record.

How has this come about? Much of the difference between adjusted operating earnings and reported earnings is caused by massive writedowns in the financial sector. However, outside the financial sectors write-offs are also at record highs as corporates are eager to toss out impaired assets during periods of stress.

Furthermore, when looking at adjusted operating earnings, it seems that most US corporates managed to beat their analyst estimates thanks to production and job cuts.

There is no doubt that strong earnings numbers several years ago reflected extraordinarily high, debt-fuelled margins that are difficult to imagine again, particularly in a deleveraging and deflating economy. Investors should not expect a rebound in earnings or profitability and certainly not to previous elevated levels. Why? Because earnings growth must entail some combination of increased profit margins, rising turnover or greater leverage. Increased leverage is currently unacceptable to managements and investors alike. Wider profit margins and higher turnover may be achievable in the short term, but are much less attainable in a deleveraging cycle.

Those assessing the health of corporate America seem to be assuming a substantial, and above normal, recovery in reported earnings, alongside a return to above-trend GDP growth over the next 12 months. They are in danger of looking at the prospects for economic recovery, revising earnings expectations higher, but without considering how this might happen. In the meantime, the elephantine gap between adjusted operating earnings and reported earnings sits quietly in the room.

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