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Tannor Pilatzke
Tannor Pilatzke
Articles (76)  | Author's Website |

During Inflation, Economic Goodwill Is the Gift That Keeps Giving

September 01, 2013 | About:

I am a huge advocate of Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger and their investment philosophy. I have made it common practice to review at least one Berkshire annual report a week, regardless of how many times I have read it. There is always a new lesson to be learned from the timeless classes of Warren Buffett. This weekend I was re-reading both, “The Most Important Thing” by Howard Marks and the 1983 Berkshire Annual Report looking for things I may have over looked the first time. The following appendix is borrowed from Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway 1983 chairman’s letter as it was very informative and opened my eyes more clearly to the economic realities of goodwill. Goodwill and amortization is a key to estimating intrinsic value of a business, while intellectually massaging the accounting mirage. The following appendix relates back to the quote from the 2009 annual report: “The best businesses by far for owners continue to be those that have high returns on capital and that require little incremental investment to grow.”

“During inflation, goodwill is the gift that keeps giving.”

(This appendix deals only with economic and accounting Goodwill – not the goodwill of everyday usage. For example, a business may be well liked, even loved, by most of its customers but possess no economic goodwill. (AT&T, before the breakup, was generally well thought of, but possessed not a dime of economic Goodwill.) And, regrettably, a business may be disliked by its customers but possess substantial, and growing, economic Goodwill. So, just for the moment, forget emotions and focus only on economics and accounting.)

When a business is purchased, accounting principles require that the purchase price first be assigned to the fair value of the identifiable assets that are acquired. Frequently the sum of the fair values put on the assets (after the deduction of liabilities) is less than the total purchase price of the business. In that case, the difference is assigned to an asset account entitled “excess of cost over equity in net assets acquired”. To avoid constant repetition of this mouthful, we will substitute “Goodwill”.

Accounting Goodwill arising from businesses purchased before November 1970 has a special standing. Except under rare circumstances, it can remain an asset on the balance sheet as long as the business bought is retained. That means no amortization charges to gradually extinguish that asset need be made against earnings.

The case is different, however, with purchases made from November 1970 on. When these create Goodwill, it must be amortized over not more than 40 years through charges – of equal amount in every year – to the earnings account. Since 40 years is the maximum period allowed, 40 years is what managements (including us) usually elect. This annual charge to earnings is not allowed as a tax deduction and, thus, has an effect on after-tax income that is roughly double that of most other expenses.

That’s how accounting Goodwill works. To see how it differs from economic reality, let’s look at an example close at hand. We’ll round some figures, and greatly oversimplify, to make the example easier to follow. We’ll also mention some implications for investors and managers.

Blue Chip Stamps bought See’s early in 1972 for $25 million, at which time See’s had about $8 million of net tangible assets. (Throughout this discussion, accounts receivable will be classified as tangible assets, a definition proper for business analysis.) This level of tangible assets was adequate to conduct the business without use of debt, except for short periods seasonally. See’s was earning about $2 million after tax at the time, and such earnings seemed conservatively representative of future earning power in constant 1972 dollars.

Thus our first lesson: businesses logically are worth far more than net tangible assets when they can be expected to produce earnings on such assets considerably in excess of market rates of return. The capitalized value of this excess return is economic Goodwill.

In 1972 (and now) relatively few businesses could be expected to consistently earn the 25% after tax on net tangible assets that was earned by See’s – doing it, furthermore, with conservative accounting and no financial leverage. It was not the fair market value of the inventories, receivables or fixed assets that produced the premium rates of return. Rather it was a combination of intangible assets, particularly a pervasive favorable reputation with consumers based upon countless pleasant experiences they have had with both product and personnel.

Such a reputation creates a consumer franchise that allows the value of the product to the purchaser, rather than its production cost, to be the major determinant of selling price. Consumer franchises are a prime source of economic Goodwill. Other sources include governmental franchises not subject to profit regulation, such as television stations, and an enduring position as the low cost producer in an industry.

Let’s return to the accounting in the See’s example. Blue Chip’s purchase of See’s at $17 million over net tangible assets required that a Goodwill account of this amount be established as an asset on Blue Chip’s books and that $425,000 be charged to income annually for 40 years to amortize that asset. By 1983, after 11 years of such charges, the $17 million had been reduced to about $12.5 million. Berkshire, meanwhile, owned 60% of Blue Chip and, therefore, also 60% of See’s. This ownership meant that Berkshire’s balance sheet reflected 60% of See’s Goodwill, or about $7.5 million.

In 1983 Berkshire acquired the rest of Blue Chip in a merger that required purchase accounting as contrasted to the “pooling” treatment allowed for some mergers. Under purchase accounting, the “fair value” of the shares we gave to (or “paid”) Blue Chip holders had to be spread over the net assets acquired from Blue Chip. This “fair value” was measured, as it almost always is when public companies use their shares to make acquisitions, by the market value of the shares given up.

The assets “purchased” consisted of 40% of everything owned by Blue Chip (as noted, Berkshire already owned the other 60%). What Berkshire “paid” was more than the net identifiable assets we received by $51.7 million, and was assigned to two pieces of Goodwill: $28.4 million to See’s and $23.3 million to Buffalo Evening News.

After the merger, therefore, Berkshire was left with a Goodwill asset for See’s that had two components: the $7.5 million remaining from the 1971 purchase, and $28.4 million newly created by the 40% “purchased” in 1983. Our amortization charge now will be about $1.0 million for the next 28 years, and $.7 million for the following 12 years, 2002 through 2013.

In other words, different purchase dates and prices have given us vastly different asset values and amortization charges for two pieces of the same asset. (We repeat our usual disclaimer: we have no better accounting system to suggest. The problems to be dealt with are mind-boggling and require arbitrary rules.)

But what are the economic realities? One reality is that the amortization charges that have been deducted as costs in the earnings statement each year since acquisition of See’s were not true economic costs. We know that because See’s last year earned $13 million after taxes on about $20 million of net tangible assets – a performance indicating the existence of economic Goodwill far larger than the total original cost of our accounting Goodwill. In other words, while accounting Goodwill regularly decreased from the moment of purchase, economic Goodwill increased in irregular but very substantial fashion.

Another reality is that annual amortization charges in the future will not correspond to economic costs. It is possible, of course, that See’s economic Goodwill will disappear. But it won’t shrink in even decrements or anything remotely resembling them. What is more likely is that the Goodwill will increase – in current, if not in constant, dollars – because of inflation.

That probability exists because true economic Goodwill tends to rise in nominal value proportionally with inflation. To illustrate how this works, let’s contrast a See’s kind of business with a more mundane business. When we purchased See’s in 1972, it will be recalled, it was earning about $2 million on $8 million of net tangible assets. Let us assume that our hypothetical mundane business then had $2 million of earnings also, but needed $18 million in net tangible assets for normal operations. Earning only 11% on required tangible assets, that mundane business would possess little or no economic Goodwill.

A business like that, therefore, might well have sold for the value of its net tangible assets, or for $18 million. In contrast, we paid $25 million for See’s, even though it had no more in earnings and less than half as much in “honest-to-God” assets. Could less really have been more, as our purchase price implied? The answer is “yes” – even if both businesses were expected to have flat unit volume – as long as you anticipated, as we did in 1972, a world of continuous inflation.

To understand why, imagine the effect that a doubling of the price level would subsequently have on the two businesses. Both would need to double their nominal earnings to $4 million to keep themselves even with inflation. This would seem to be no great trick: just sell the same number of units at double earlier prices and, assuming profit margins remain unchanged, profits also must double.

But, crucially, to bring that about, both businesses probably would have to double their nominal investment in net tangible assets; since that is the kind of economic requirement that inflation usually imposes on businesses, both good and bad. A doubling of dollar sales means correspondingly more dollars must be employed immediately in receivables and inventories. Dollars employed in fixed assets will respond more slowly to inflation, but probably just as surely. And all of this inflation-required investment will produce no improvement in rate of return. The motivation for this investment is the survival of the business, not the prosperity of the owner.

Remember, however, that See’s had net tangible assets of only $8 million. So it would only have had to commit an additional $8 million to finance the capital needs imposed by inflation. The mundane business, meanwhile, had a burden over twice as large – a need for $18 million of additional capital.

After the dust had settled, the mundane business, now earning $4 million annually, might still be worth the value of its tangible assets, or $36 million. That means its owners would have gained only a dollar of nominal value for every new dollar invested. (This is the same dollar-for-dollar result they would have achieved if they had added money to a savings account.)

See’s, however, also earning $4 million, might be worth $50 million if valued (as it logically would be) on the same basis as it was at the time of our purchase. So it would have gained $25 million in nominal value while the owners were putting up only $8 million in additional capital – over $3 of nominal value gained for each $1 invested.

Remember, even so, that the owners of the See’s kind of business were forced by inflation to ante up $8 million in additional capital just to stay even in real profits. Any unleveraged business that requires some net tangible assets to operate (and almost all do) is hurt by inflation. Businesses needing little in the way of tangible assets simply are hurt the least.

And that fact, of course, has been hard for many people to grasp. For years the traditional wisdom – long on tradition, short on wisdom – held that inflation protection was best provided by businesses laden with natural resources, plants and machinery, or other tangible assets (“In Goods We Trust”). It doesn’t work that way. Asset-heavy businesses generally earn low rates of return – rates that often barely provide enough capital to fund the inflationary needs of the existing business, with nothing left over for real growth, for distribution to owners, or for acquisition of new businesses.

In contrast, a disproportionate number of the great business fortunes built up during the inflationary years arose from ownership of operations that combined intangibles of lasting value with relatively minor requirements for tangible assets. In such cases earnings have bounded upward in nominal dollars, and these dollars have been largely available for the acquisition of additional businesses. This phenomenon has been particularly evident in the communications business. That business has required little in the way of tangible investment – yet its franchises have endured. During inflation, Goodwill is the gift that keeps giving.

But that statement applies, naturally, only to true economic Goodwill. Spurious accounting Goodwill – and there is plenty of it around – is another matter. When an overexcited management purchases a business at a silly price, the same accounting niceties described earlier are observed. Because it can’t go anywhere else, the silliness ends up in the Goodwill account. Considering the lack of managerial discipline that created the account, under such circumstances it might better be labeled “No-Will”. Whatever the term, the 40-year ritual typically is observed and the adrenalin so capitalized remains on the books as an “asset” just as if the acquisition had been a sensible one.

If you cling to any belief that accounting treatment of Goodwill is the best measure of economic reality, I suggest one final item to ponder.

Assume a company with $20 per share of net worth, all tangible assets. Further assume the company has internally developed some magnificent consumer franchise, or that it was fortunate enough to obtain some important television stations by original FCC grant. Therefore, it earns a great deal on tangible assets, say $5 per share, or 25%. With such economics, it might sell for $100 per share or more, and it might well also bring that price in a negotiated sale of the entire business. Assume an investor buys the stock at $100 per share, paying in effect $80 per share for Goodwill (just as would a corporate purchaser buying the whole company). Should the investor impute a $2 per share amortization charge annually ($80 divided by 40 years) to calculate “true” earnings per share? And, if so, should the new “true” earnings of $3 per share cause him to rethink his purchase price?

We believe managers and investors alike should view intangible assets from two perspectives:

In analysis of operating results – that is, in evaluating the underlying economics of a business unit – amortization charges should be ignored. What a business can be expected to earn on unleveraged net tangible assets, excluding any charges against earnings for amortization of Goodwill, is the best guide to the economic attractiveness of the operation. It is also the best guide to the current value of the operation’s economic Goodwill.

In evaluating the wisdom of business acquisitions, amortization charges should be ignored also. They should be deducted neither from earnings nor from the cost of the business. This means forever viewing purchased Goodwill at its full cost, before any amortization. Furthermore, cost should be defined as including the full intrinsic business value – not just the recorded accounting value – of all consideration given, irrespective of market prices of the securities involved at the time of merger and irrespective of whether pooling treatment was allowed. For example, what we truly paid in the Blue Chip merger for 40% of the Goodwill of See’s and the News was considerably more than the $51.7 million entered on our books. This disparity exists because the market value of the Berkshire shares given up in the merger was less than their intrinsic business value, which is the value that defines the true cost to us.

Operations that appear to be winners based upon perspective (1) may pale when viewed from perspective (2). A good business is not always a good purchase – although it’s a good place to look for one.

We will try to acquire businesses that have excellent operating economics measured by (1) and that provide reasonable returns measured by (2). Accounting consequences will be totally ignored.

At yearend 1983, net Goodwill on our accounting books totaled $62 million, consisting of the $79 million you see stated on the asset side of our balance sheet, and $17 million of negative Goodwill that is offset against the carrying value of our interest in Mutual Savings and Loan.

We believe net economic Goodwill far exceeds the $62 million accounting number.

About the author:

Tannor Pilatzke
I am a self taught investor through Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, Ben Graham, Peter Lynch, Joel Greenblatt, David Einhorn, Seth Klarman, Howard Marks, Phillip Fisher and Thornton O'Glove. My focus is a bottoms up Value-GARP strategy with a mix of top down contrarianism.

"When you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect." - Mark Twain

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