In the recent past, there’s been an influx of articles about Microsoft (MSFT) that put the P/E ratio somewhere in the mid-teens and use that as justification for determining whether or not the company is fairly valued. I point to this because the P/E mentioned is the one found on the well-known finance websites, as well as the one that would pop up if you ran a stock screener – yet anybody who follows the company closely knows that as a measure of earnings power, the “E” used in this equation is inaccurate due to the impact of an impairment charge taken throughout the year.
The purpose of this article is not to debate that charge (though I think Microsoft investors should be asking whether the past few years of M&A spend from this management team has been an attractive alternative to returning capital to shareholders); my purpose is to show that these proclamations (“the P/E is blank, which means this company is over/under/fairly valued”) are a disservice to investors, and often riddled with nuance that can cause material investment errors.
One of the main ways this measure can mislead investors is through the use of non-GAAP earning figures, which are paraded out by one management team after another to give investors a look under the hood at the true earnings power of a business; while this often led to acceptance of the non-GAAP figure as the “true” measure of a company’s earnings, the reality is that it often requires much more than a cursory review.
A favorite example of the investment community (and one I’ve discussed before) comes from Salesforce.com (CRM), which has found a way to remove charges when they hurt the company’s performance presentation (in terms of earnings), yet add those same values back in when they make the results look stronger (via higher operating cash flows). Today, I’ll look at a different company to make my point: that company is Hewlett Packard (HPQ).
Let’s take a look at the company’s most recent earnings report to see how management describes the performance in the press release:
“HP (NYSE:HPQ) today announced financial results for its third fiscal quarter ended July 31, 2012. For the quarter, net revenue of $29.7 billion was down 5% year over year and down 2% when adjusted for the effects of currency.
GAAP loss per share was $4.49, down from earnings per share (EPS) of $0.93 in the prior-year period. Non-GAAP diluted EPS was $1.00, down 9% from the prior-year period. Third quarter non-GAAP earnings information excludes after-tax costs of $10.8 billion, or $5.49 per diluted share, related to the amortization and impairment of purchased intangible assets, the impairment of goodwill, restructuring charges, acquisition-related charges and charges relating to the wind-down of certain retail publishing business activities, including the previously announced charges related to the impairment of goodwill within HP's Services segment, the restructuring program announced in May 2012, and the impairment of the purchased intangible asset associated with the 'Compaq' trade name.”
Looking at that list, it’s easy to say, “Well, goodwill impairment is non-cash and restructuring programs should be a one-time item,” and accept the non-GAAP numbers as they are. However, a quick look at the 10-K will show why this is misguided; here’s the breakdown of restructuring charges that Hewlett-Packard has taken in the last ten years:
The reality is that HPQ has taken restructuring charges year after year; based on this, it would be more appropriate to add in a charge for the likelihood that they will once again surface in the future rather than to back out current charges as one-time items that don’t reflect the underlying operations. For example, here’s the wording from a 10-K in the early 2000s:
“In fiscal 2001, management approved restructuring actions to respond to the global economic downturn and to improve our cost structure by streamlining operations and prioritizing resources in strategic areas of our business infrastructure.”
Operating throughout economic downturns (and doing what it takes to survive, if necessary) is a real part of business and one that will be relived many times over if HPQ is around for decades to come; considering such costs one-time would be flat out inaccurate.
The point isn’t to single out HPQ (though they certainly fit the bill); there are plenty of companies that use non-GAAP earnings, and many times it is justified. One potential solution to this issue is to use ten-year averages as your estimate of earnings power, while spreading out one-time-type charges over a period of years to reflect their applicability to the operations in question. As always, this comes back to sitting in a room and diligently researching companies rather than looking for shortcuts; you must read SEC filings, and make case by case judgments on the applicability of charges as they appear to determine the true earnings power of a business.
About the author:
As it relates to portfolio construction, my goal is to make a small number of meaningful decisions. In the words of Charlie Munger, my preferred approach is "patience followed by pretty aggressive conduct." I run a concentrated portfolio, with a handful of equities accounting for the majority of my portfolio (currently two). In the eyes of a businessman, I believe this is adequate diversification.