【英语财经】高科技企业的“财务粉刷术” The real cost of big tech’s accounting games

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2016-5-12 22:56

小艾摘要: How much did LinkedIn make over the past three years? Sounds a simple enough question doesn’t it? But it is also one that is capable of being answered in multiple and very diverse ways.First, let’s ...
The real cost of big tech’s accounting games
How much did LinkedIn make over the past three years? Sounds a simple enough question doesn’t it? But it is also one that is capable of being answered in multiple and very diverse ways.

First, let’s look at the figure the US online networking site wants you to focus on. That’s a mouthful called adjusted earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (ebitda), and the total there between 2013 and 2015 came in at a positive $1.7bn.

Sounds pretty hunky dory? Well, now check out the operating profit line for the business — the one calculated according to the generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) that companies must present but often don’t emphasise. Over the same period, LinkedIn racked up a $67m loss.

What explains the yawning $1.8bn difference between those two figures? It isn’t simply the depreciation and amortisation charges the company took against the value of its assets. Those, while pretty hefty, came to just $791m. No, the biggest single reason for the negative swing was the $1bn cost of the stock LinkedIn stuffed into its employees’ pay packets over those three years.

LinkedIn is just one of a number of US tech companies that airbrush out such payments when presenting results to investors. It is part of a broader trend that has seen companies strain to put the best possible spin on their numbers, excluding inconvenient non-cash or supposedly non recurring items they claim obscure rather than elucidate the underlying performance of the business.

Mark Mahaney, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets, recently outed some of the large-cap tech groups that are the biggest payers of stock to their employees. Number one on the list was Twitter. Over the past two years the messaging platform has on average issued shares to employees with a value equivalent to 124 per cent of operating income.

Not that you would know this when looking at the company’s earnings releases. In its recently announced first-quarter figures, Twitter reported pro forma earnings of 15 cents a share. It is only when you dig out the GAAP number the company also supplies, but does not emphasise, that the uglier reality becomes apparent: it actually lost 12 cents a share.

It may seem odd that companies are still engaging in this less-than-innocent deception. After all, it is hard to find a convincing argument for excluding stock compensation from earnings.

While no cash may change hands when a company issues equity to its employees, the firm denies itself the chance to sell those shares or options for value in the market. Failing to recognise that forgone cash effectively understates the cost the company has incurred in employing those individuals. That’s not only imprudent, it makes it harder to compare that business with other firms that take a more sensible approach.

Tech companies are not the only offenders, of course, and stock compensation isn’t the only cost that magically vanishes when companies present non-GAAP figures. Indeed, the practice is mushrooming. According to the Analyst’s Accounting Observer, 90 per cent of the constituents in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index produced non-GAAP figures last year, up from 72 per cent in 2009.

All sorts of costs are being vaporised as companies present their results with increasing creativity. They range from such items as preferred dividends and even severance payments to the legal and restructuring costs that Valeant, an acquisitive pharmaceutical company, notoriously deducted from its expense lines.

Inevitably, non-GAAP figures are diverging ever further from accounting reality. In a study of 380 S&P 500 companies, the Analyst’s Accounting Observer calculated that their “adjusted” net income rose 6.6 per cent to $804bn last year. It sounds great until you discover that under GAAP precisely the opposite was happening. Net income at those same companies actually declined almost 11 per cent to $562bn — a full 30 per cent less.

Obsessed by top-line growth, shareholders seem happy to acquiesce in these practices. In the meantime, most analysts have loyally focused on adjusted numbers, perhaps feeling under pressure from company bosses to play along.

But these acts of self-deception carry real risks for investors. For instance, excluding the cost of stock grants can lead to inflated executive pay levels. There is also the problem of what happens when the share price falters. Then, to avoid losing its valuable employees, the company may have the unpalatable choice of either diluting investors further — or switching suddenly to cash compensation that it may struggle to afford.

While keeping it real may make for a less inspiring income statement, it does at least proof figures against this sort of unpleasant eventuality. For now investors may be content to play along with companies’ accounting fantasies. Sooner or later, however, it is an indulgence they will come to regret.

过去三年领英(LinkedIn)赚了多少钱?这问题听起来够简单,不是么?然而,这也是个能以多种极其不同的方式回答的问题。

首先,让我们看看这家美国在线人脉网站希望你关注的数据。那是一个极其绕口的词:息税折旧及摊销前利润(Ebitda),2013年至2015年期间该数据的总额为17亿美元。

听起来相当不错?那么,再看看该企业的营运利润这一栏。这一数字是根据美国公认会计原则(GAAP)计算得出的,企业必须提供这一数字,但往往不会强调它。在同一时期内,领英累计录得6700万美元亏损。

两个数字间18亿美元的巨大差异该如何解释?其原因不能简单地认为是该公司对其资产价值的折旧和摊销所导致的。这两项虽然也很高,但总共才7.91亿美元。该数据负面波动的最大原因,是那三年里领英塞到其员工工资袋里的股票所导致的10亿美元成本。

领英只是向投资者陈述财报时掩饰这类成本的众多美国高科技企业之一。此举是更大范围趋势的一部分:企业以尽可能积极的方式呈现业绩,剔除不方便的非现金项目或非经常性项目,声称这类项目模糊而不是说明根本的业务表现。

最近,加拿大皇家银行资本市场(RBC Capital Markets)分析师马克?马哈尼(Mark Mahaney)揭露了向员工支付股票规模最大的一些高市值高科技集团。名单上排在第一位的是Twitter。过去两年,这个即时消息平台向员工发行的股票价值平均相当于营业利润的1.24倍。

查看该公司发布的财报时,你是找不到这个事实的。在最近发布的第一季度财报数据中,Twitter报出备考盈利每股15美分。只有当你挖掘出该公司同时提供、却不强调的GAAP数据后,更丑陋的现实才会浮出水面:该公司实际上每股亏损12美分。

企业仍在搞这种不够厚道的欺骗手段,似乎有点不可思议。毕竟,对于把股票报酬排除在盈利数据以外的做法,很难找到有说服力的理由。

尽管当企业向员工发行股份时不会有现金上的交易,但企业这么做就失去了自己在市场上出售这些股份或期权以兑现价值的可能性。未能承认这些被放弃的现金,实际上低估了企业雇用这些人的成本。这么做不仅仅是不够谨慎,还令人更难将该公司与其他采取更明智做法的公司进行比较。

当然,高科技企业并不是唯一这么做的企业,股票报酬也不是企业提供非GAAP数据时唯一魔术般消失的成本。的确,这类做法如雨后春笋般层出不穷。据《分析师会计观察》(Analyst's Accounting Observer)介绍,标普500(S&P 500)指数90%的成分股公司去年报出的数据不符合美国公认会计准则,高于2009年的72%。

随着企业以越来越高的“创造性”展示其业绩,各种各样的成本蒸发了。这些成本从优先股息和遣散费,到法律和重组成本——收购意识较强的制药公司Valeant就以从开支中移除法律和重组成本而留下坏名声。

不可避免的是,非GAAP数据与会计现实渐行渐远。在对380家标普500成分股企业的研究中,《分析师会计观察》计算得出,去年它们“调整后”的净利润增长了6.6%,达到8040亿美元。这个数字听起来相当好,然而按照GAAP原则计算一下,你会发现情况恰恰相反。同一批企业的净利润其实下滑了近11%,至5620亿美元——足足少了30%。

纠结于顶线增长的股东,似乎乐于默许这类行为。与此同时,多数分析师忠实地关注调整后的数字,也许是因为他们受到了来自企业老板的压力,要求他们配合。

然而,这种自我欺骗的行为给投资者带来真切的风险。比如,将授予股份的成本排除在外,可能会导致虚高的高管薪资水平。此外,股价下跌时也会出现问题。到那时候,为避免有价值的员工流失,企业也许会面临一个不愉快的选择:要么进一步稀释投资者,要么突然转而采取它也许难以承担的现金薪酬。

尽管老实的会计方法也许带来不那么鼓舞人心的报表,但它至少能让数字如实反映情况,免遭上述不愉快结局。眼下投资者也许会满足于附和企业的会计幻想。然而,他们迟早会为这种纵容后悔。

译者/简易

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