Bradley Cipriano by Bradley Cipriano, CPA
Equity Analyst, Gradient Analytics LLC (a Sabrient Systems company)

At Gradient Analytics, our forensic accounting analysis includes assessing the quality of a company’s reported earnings and the strength of its balance sheet. A key element of this process is understanding whether recently reported growth is sustainable and whether forward expectations are reasonable. New GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) standards – such as Contracts with Customers (ASC 606), which went into effect at the beginning of this year – have distorted year-over-year growth figures, such that it has become routinely necessary for an investor/analyst to adjust income statement and balance sheet accounts to get a clearer like-for-like comparison. For example, ARRIS International plc (ARRS) has grown 2018 YTD GAAP EPS by $0.17, which includes an $0.18 benefit from ASC 606. So, while ARRS is showing earnings growth on the surface, its comparable YOY earnings have actually declined. Understanding how new accounting standards can be manipulated to positively impact earnings can help investors better assess reported results.

While such new standards are often viewed as “a wash” since there is no change to the underlying economics of a business, the changes under the new leasing standard Leases (ASC 842), which is coming into effect in 2019, may prove quite material for certain corporate filers. The new leasing standard follows a convergence in accounting principles between International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) and U.S. GAAP to improve comparability among different filers. Currently, operating leases (which are similar to debt) are disclosed off-balance sheet in the footnotes with limited qualitative or quantitative disclosures. But following the adoption of the leasing standard, this debt must be brought back onto the financial statements along with increased disclosure requirements. It is important to question why a company has relied on off-balance sheet debt in the past to better understand the risks that may surface once this debt is brought back onto the statements.

In this article, I explain ASC 842, summarize the major changes it introduces and its expected impact on corporate financial statements, and discuss how this new leasing standard allows for management subjectivity that might be used to distort earnings growth and disguise a firm’s sustainable operating performance. Read on….

smartindale / Tag: asc 842, forensic accounting, earnings quality, lease, GAAP, IFRS, leasing standard / 0 Comments

By Rachel Bradley
Equity Analyst, Gradient Analytics LLC (a Sabrient Systems company)

In mid-June, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates by 25 bps and signaled it was on track to raise rates twice more in 2018. With interest rates near zero for almost ten years, we believe that this gradual normalization to higher rates signals a long-term positive for the sustainable growth of the economy. The Fed is signaling its satisfaction with current inflation and unemployment trends and its confidence in the health of the broad economy. Fed chair Jerome Powell has stated that the economy has become sufficiently healthy such that the Fed can be more hands-off in stimulating economic activity.

During a normal expansion phase characterized by robust economic growth and rising equity prices, the Fed typically will push up interest rates (causing bond prices to fall). But in its most recent comments, the FOMC signaled it would likely allow inflation to hover above its official 2.0% target. Such a lenient (or dovish) stance on inflation is generally more favorable for continued growth as the Fed is in no hurry to increase the speed of its rate hikes. Even after the latest rate hike, the target nominal fed funds rate is 1.75%-2.00%, which is still a negative real rate once inflation is subtracted. The last time the fed funds rate was over 2.00% was in 2008.

One of the basic tenants of finance is the inverse relationship between interest rates and bond values. However, as the Federal Reserve continues on its path to normalize rates, we believe it’s worth exploring how interest rate changes can also affect equity valuations. The questions that seem to be on the collective investment community’s mind is, “What does this mean for me and my holdings? Are valuations peaking? Should I sell?” While it normally takes a year or more for changes in interest rates to be felt across the entire economy, the market often has a more immediate response.

To explore this in greater detail, we analyzed SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. (SEAS) as an illustrative example of the potential impact of a future rate hike, given that it is heavily levered with a material proportion of variable-rate debt. We believe that the consensus forward EPS estimates for SeaWorld are likely overstated (and out of management’s control) as interest rates – and the firm’s interest expense – continue to rise, putting downward pressure on its valuation. Other companies with similar balance sheet exposure may be similarly at risk. Read on....

smartindale / Tag: interest rates, earnings quality, forensic accounting, federal reserve, SEAS, leverage, debt / 0 Comments

Nicholas YeeBy Nicholas Yee
Director of Research, Gradient Analytics LLC (a Sabrient Systems company)

Over the past five years, Gradient Analytics has observed a shift from companies making acquisitions for strategic purposes to companies acquiring mainly for short-term financial gains. This stems at least in part from investors and a sell-side community that have become complacent in accepting managements’ accounting statements at face value without looking “under the hood.” To be sure, the complexity of acquisition accounting and the opaqueness of financial performance analytics is daunting. Therefore, it is incumbent upon earnings quality analysts to try to understand whether a company’s senior management may have other motives fueling an acquisition platform (aka “roll-up”) strategy.

Where previously we might have screened for deteriorating free cash flow and accruals to identify poor earnings quality trends, we now find that some managers have been circumventing cash from operating activities (CFOA) and moving working capital into investing activities on the cash flow statement through acquisitions. Why is this important, you ask? Should analysts always lump the cash paid for an acquisition into free-cash-flow calculations? Not necessarily; there is no hard and fast rule here to put into an automated screener in this situation. Rather, our analysts must perform a deep dive to determine whether the company is a “serial acquirer.” Is this a one-time acquisition that integrates seamlessly into the parent company, or is this just one of a series of mediocre acquisitions used to aesthetically grow the top-line and obfuscate traditional performance metrics?  Read on....

smartindale / Tag: forensic accounting, earnings quality, acquisition, 10-K, 10-Q, GAAP, non-GAAP, roll-up, cash flow / 0 Comments

Byron MacleodBy Byron Macleod, CFA
Associate Director of Research, Gradient Analytics LLC (a Sabrient Systems company)

Given that Gradient Analytics’ research is primarily focused on forensic accounting, this common client question falls into our sweet spot. However, the link between earnings quality concerns and share price underperformance can be difficult to assess for two reasons:

   1.  Investors and sell-side analysts tend to focus their attention on the income statement, but there is not always a predictable correlation between the highlighted balance sheet trends and the income statement impact.
   2.  Because management has a huge amount of discretion over how accounting entries are handled (including when to recognize built-up expenses, impairments, non-cash gains, etc.), earnings quality concerns often have ambiguous timing.

Thus, investors often are left wondering just how and when eroding earnings quality in their portfolio holdings – whether long or short – will ultimately impact their fund’s performance.

Nevertheless, to illustrate how such red flags may indeed lead to notable share price decline, I will describe three real-life examples. For compliance reasons, I won’t disclose their names, but will simply refer to them as Company A, B, and C. Read on....

Brent MillerBy Brent Miller, CFA
President & COO, Gradient Analytics (a Sabrient Systems company)

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” – JFK

When evaluating the earnings quality of a given company, a forensic accounting firm like Gradient Analytics focuses on key indicators that may indicate that a company has taken liberties to cosmetically enhance its financial performance via aggressive revenue recognition and/or the understatement of expenses. Signals that a firm may be engaging in financial gamesmanship include:

  1. Divergence between reported earnings and free cash flow (i.e., an increase in accruals)
  2. Overstatement of assets
  3. Understatement of liabilities
  4. Negative or decelerating organic revenue growth
  5. Persistently widening gap between GAAP and non-GAAP EPS

In this article, I discuss a new amendment to the accounting standards that seeks to reduce inconsistencies and improve standardization of revenue recognition practices.  Read more...