If you've ever examined a company's financial statements, you'll undoubtedly have come across several measures of earnings. But what does it all mean and what can you trust? All public companies in the United States are required to report earnings according to generally accepted accounting principles set forth by the Financial Accounting Standards Board. But here's the twist: companies can also report earnings based on whatever logic management finds suitable. The discrepancies between GAAP and non-GAAP earnings can be enormous and you should be mindful of them.
Both GAAP and non-GAAP earnings represent a trove of data that can be quite useful for potential investors. That being said, non-GAAP earnings are not part of legally regulated reporting requirements as mandated by the SEC.
Exploring GAAP Earnings
Standard financial reporting requirements are fairly prescriptive. Under GAAP, companies report earnings based on time-honored accounting principles like accrual accounting, revenue recognition and expense matching. For example, the matching principle requires that companies report expenses in the same period as related revenues. Thus, an automaker might report a quarterly depreciation expense associated with its factory. If the factory cost $100 million, the company might depreciate it evenly over 10 years and report a $2.5 million quarterly depreciation expense.
Evaluating Non-GAAP Earnings
Companies may supplement GAAP earnings with non-GAAP measures. The rationale for allowing such departures is that management may have alternative ways of representing the company's "true" performance. In our earlier example, the company might choose to report earnings before depreciation. This is a popular adjustment because it offers investors a more accurate picture of the company's cash flow, since depreciation is a non-cash expense. Thus, the automaker might include a non-GAAP line item for earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) that excludes the $2.5 million of quarterly depreciation.
Understanding the Reconciliation Process
The Securities and Exchange Commission requires that any company that reports non-GAAP earnings also present the most directly comparable GAAP financial measure. For example, a company reporting EBITDA would also have to provide a step-by-step reconciliation with net earnings (the most comparable GAAP measure). In our earlier example, the automaker would have to add back the $2.5 million of quarterly depreciation expense that it subtracted from net earnings.
Abuse of Non-GAAP Measures
Be wary of companies playing games with non-GAAP earnings. The SEC's Regulation G prohibits the dissemination of false or misleading GAAP or non-GAAP financial measures. The first time the SEC enforced this regulation was with a company called SafeNet in 2009. The management was charged with improperly reporting earnings in order to meet its earnings targets. Alleged violations included mischaracterizations of line items, reclassifying ordinary operating expenses as integration expenses and improperly reducing accruals.
Giulio Rocca's background is in investment banking and management consulting, including advising Fortune 500 companies on mergers and acquisitions and corporate strategy. He also founded GradSchoolHeaven.com, an online resource for graduate school applicants. He holds a Bachelor of Science in economics from the University of Pennsylvania, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and a Master of Business Administration from Harvard University.