Posts Tagged ‘Earnings’

The balance sheet & all the rest

October 30, 2010

Legendary value investor Marty Whitman gives a good interview on investing in the October 30 Barron’s. It’s a fun read, if you like to gather wisdom from folks who have been around Wall Street for more than a few bull – and bear – markets.

The 86-year-old founder (and still chairman) of Third Avenue Management talks about value investing, the need for transparency in markets, short sellers, lessons from the latest financial crisis, and academic theories (he doesn’t much like them).

Investor relations people may benefit from Whitman’s No.1 lesson from the 2008 financial meltdown: the importance of the balance sheet, which IR messaging often skimps on or ignores. And his No. 2 lesson: the importance of management in protecting investors from getting clobbered by something like the ’08 crisis.

Both should be themes for investor communications, especially now.

Whitman’s advice to other investors also has applications to IR:

You have to be gestaltist. Every accounting number is important, and is derived from other accounting numbers. So you have to understand the whole accounting cycle. If I want to estimate earnings, and I only have one tool, I would pick the current balance sheet.

As a value investor, what you are interested in is whether the company is creating wealth. There are four ways to create wealth; it is not just cash flow. They are [bullets added]:

  • One, having cash flow from operations available to security holders. A company can use that cash to expand its asset base, reduce liabilities or distribute the money to shareholders, either by paying dividends or buying back stock.
  • Two, and probably much more important, is having earnings, which we define as creating wealth while consuming cash. Remember, though, that earnings for most companies do not have a long-term value unless the company also has access to capital markets because if it doesn’t, sooner or later, it will to run out of cash.
  • The third—and very, very important—value-creation method is resource conversion. … Mergers and acquisitions, changes in control, massive recapitalizations, spinoffs, etc.
  • The fourth wealth-creation method … is having extremely attractive access to capital markets.

Food for thought as we develop messages for annual reports, presentations and financial releases. Many companies give a nod to “creating shareholder value” but fail to spell out the strategy for doing so.

Investors in most companies would benefit from management doing a better job of showing shareholders how business results – and changes in business strategy – work through the income statement, balance sheet and cash flows. Basic IR.

© 2010 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

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Let’s think about year-end

July 1, 2010

Arrival of the second half, naturally I think, sets investors and investor relations people to thinking about year-end. We’re halfway through 2010, so we begin to ask, “What will the outcome of this year be, in earnings and other accomplishments? … or in disappointments?”

As an IR person in the US, I’ve always seen Fourth of July weekend as a kind of pivot for the year. Whether it’s the start of third quarter or the holiday picnics and fireworks that punctuate this time for you, here are some questions to contemplate:

  • What kind of year will 2010 be in your memory, and that of your shareholders, 2 or 3 years from now? Do your communications now reflect that tone?
  • More immediately, when you report second-quarter earnings in the next few weeks, how will you answer questions about full-year 2010 prospects?
  • What do the first-half trends tell you about likely sales, costs and earnings in the next 6 months?
  • Does your outlook include a second-half turnaround, and what evidence can you offer of its probability?
  • What accomplishments has management promised for 2010 that need to get accomplished in the second half? Or do you need to soften those projections?
  • Do the CEO and CFO plan any mid-course corrections? If so, when is the appropriate time to begin to disclose those to investors?
  • What tone and messages will your audience get in the 2010 annual report? Time to get started is coming – whether your “annual” is a robust piece full of image, strategy and performance, a plain 10-K, or something in between.

Sure, we have a few weeks to relax – except for reporting Q2 results and all the interaction around earnings time – before the real rush to year-end begins. But the onset of second half is a good trigger for starting the thought process.

© 2010 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Body language & tone are back

June 16, 2010

In a spirit of renewed regulatory machismo, the SEC is reportedly investigating whether generic drug company Mylan violated Regulation FD by “sounding excited” and dropping positive hints about upcoming earnings in a 2009 meeting with a analysts and investors, according to today’s Wall Street Journal (page C1).

The incident is a reminder of the risks of what should be normal investor relations activities – meetings and phone calls with the Street. Exactly what happened in the Mylan meeting isn’t clear from the WSJ or a similar Reuters article – but this story is going to be worth following.

According to the WSJ, the SEC has asked Mylan and some analysts who attended the meeting last September – three weeks before the end of the third quarter – what the company said regarding earnings for the quarter. The day after the meeting, the paper said, Mylan shares jumped 7% – and the stock rose further when earnings were reported in late October.

Mylan told the WSJ the company is “confident the communications made during the conference were entirely appropriate.” The meeting wasn’t webcast, and Mylan didn’t issue a news release or file anything with the SEC disclosing information from the meeting – as Reg FD would require if something material was said.

Details so far are scarce. The most color came from analysts cited by the WSJ:

A UBS analyst who attended the Sept. 9 meeting said in a report to clients the next day that Mylan’s “management sounded excited about the upcoming 3Q.” The report added: “although not saying it, management basically implied once again that it was confirming 2010 EPS guidance.” Other analyst notes also said the company was “excited” about reporting earnings.

SEC cases based on Reg FD have been rare. Reuters notes that the Mylan incident is reminiscent of an SEC action against Richard Kogan, former chief executive of another drugmaker, Schering-Plough. Reuters recalls:

The SEC investigated [Kogan’s] private meetings in September 2002 with four institutional investors in Boston, three of which were among the company’s largest investors.

“At each of these meetings, through a combination of spoken language, tone, emphasis and demeanor, Kogan disclosed negative and material, nonpublic information regarding Schering’s earnings prospects,” including that the company’s 2003 earnings would significantly decline, the SEC found.

In the Schering-Plough case, the stock price took a dive after the lunch meeting with investors. Publicly, the company remained silent. The CEO was gone a few months later, and Schering-Plough ultimately agreed to pay a $1 million civil penalty to the SEC. Kogan paid $50,000.

So … maybe body language and tone are back in the SEC’s sights. We’ll have to see. Today’s news is a reminder that IR professionals – and senior managers – need to be vigilant about even inadvertent guidance on earnings in private meetings.

One way to prevent this problem is to announce an analyst day in advance and webcast the presentations. That works for larger meetings.

I believe companies also should continue to meet personally with individual investors or small groups – this is how relationships are built. The executive team and IR should rehearse  beforehand what’s to be discussed – and not discussed – especially regarding upcoming earnings. If selective disclosure happens, Reg FD prescribes a pretty clear cure: broad disclosure of the information to the market.

What’s your approach to avoiding potential Reg FD problems?

© 2010 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Sell in May & go away?

May 28, 2010

Among old Wall Street sayings, “Sell in May and go away” holds special attraction. A strategy for a worry-free summer, a way to reduce risk amid seasonal doldrums, a vacation from busyness.

Ahhhhhh …

For investor relations, alas, “go away” doesn’t completely apply. There is, of course, second-quarter reporting. A few meetings. Always the potential crisis. Maybe a slow August. But while some investors disappear, many are still cranking away at their models, trades or questions.

So settle in, makes plans to enjoy some time away, and prepare for what could be an interesting summer. And right now, have a great holiday weekend!

News affects stock price? You bet

February 25, 2010

We can all probably guess the least favorite news in the eyes of investors. Yes, it’s the earnings warning: Pre-announcing a disappointment in the numbers produces the most negative response in stock price, a new study shows.

The CXO Advisory blog, which reports daily on studies of investing theory and practice, provides a good summary of a February 2010 working paper by three finance professors who looked at the impact of 285,917 news releases from 2006 to 2009. Or you can access the original paper here.

Negative news hits stock prices harder, on average, than positive news helps, the study shows. And announcements of bad news also tend to be anticipated by stock price declines, suggesting the possibility of leaks.

The five most negative announcements for stock price impact? Pre-reporting bad financial results, FDA rejections of medical products, loss of a customer, poor financial performance on regular reporting dates, and product defects.

The five most positive? Pre-reporting better than expected financial results, share buybacks, FDA approvals of pharmaceuticals, spin-offs and EU pharma approvals.

During the financial crisis, context seemed to change the market’s reaction to news announcements: Issuances of debt or secondary equity offerings, for example, weren’t seen as such negative events during a time when weaker companies couldn’t access the capital markets.

The authors, who classify corporate announcements into nine major categories and 52 subcategories, believe regulatory changes such as Regulation FD in 2000 and Sarbanes-Oxley in 2002 have given news releases a more powerful impact on the market by encouraging an instantaneous, direct-to-shareholder communication mode. In fact, the professors observe:

Possibly as a result of the vagueness of the SEC’s information release requirements firms err on the side of disclosing too much information. Additionally, firms may prefer to release immaterial news in order to attract the attention of potential investors.

One possible use of this study for IR is to help gauge materiality of various kinds of events – the loss or gain of a major customer, for example – based on the average impact that similar events have had on companies’ stock prices.

© 2010 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Happy 2010!

January 1, 2010

Just about everyone is happy to see 2009 fading into history and brighter prospects dawning with the new year. I share the enthusiasm for a new start, not to mention more favorable year-over-year comparisons. And I wish you personally a healthy and prosperous 2010.

The first question we confront, as communicators who will often cite the year in presentations and conversations, is how to say it – 2010, that is. People have been chattering on Twitter and other forums about whether “two thousand ten” or “twenty ten” is the way to pronounce 2010. I’ll put my vote in for “twenty ten.”

This view finds support from a New Year’s Day column in the San Francisco Chronicle, which cites a grammar zealot who “cringes” at  hearing two thousand ten after a century of nineteen such-and-such. Then, more moderately, a linguist:

“It’s not wrong to say ‘two thousand ten,’ ” [noted UC Berkeley linguistics Professor George] Lakoff said. “And it’s not like ‘twenty ten’ is the right way.” … Nevertheless, Lakoff predicted, ” ‘Twenty-ten’ is gonna take over. It’s shortest. It’s easiest to understand.”

And there’s something to be said for short. Maybe you don’t care, but if you’ve been wondering, there it is: Twenty-ten has arrived.

I hope your new year is a good one!

© 2010 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Two bottom lines (at least)

September 21, 2009

DollarSignGreenAs everyone knows, corporate earnings today commonly include two bottom lines: Companies report net income and EPS under Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, and then there’s a second number on the street that takes out one-time items. These metrics are commonly called GAAP earnings and “operating earnings,” without one-offs.

Over the years the gap between these two numbers has been growing, so that operating earnings for the S&P 500 have averaged nearly 24% higher than GAAP earnings in recent years, says a column (“Investors, It Pays to Mind the GAAP Gaps”) Friday in the Money & Investing section of The Wall Street Journal.

Says the Journal:

It isn’t clear why the difference has grown so wide. One inescapable conclusion is that, since 1995, either by happy accident or accounting shenanigans, one-time losses have grown more quickly than one-time gains, elevating the operating earnings that Wall Street watches.

Investors have mixed feelings about excluding one-offs from earnings. When you throw in EBITDA or adjusted EBITDA, which proponents in some industries prefer as a tool for valuation, some investors are confused or skeptical. You may have heard unconvinced accounting profs push back on “Earnings Before All the Bad Stuff.”

The Journal observes that companies tend to label negative events (write-downs or special charges) as one-offs more often than happy events (windfalls or gains on assets), and excessive write-offs may signal deeper problems:

Investors are well advised to watch both figures for another reason: Some companies have bigger differences between GAAP and operating earnings than others. According to research by Société Générale quantitative strategist Andrew Lapthorne, those with bigger gaps tend to underperform in the long run.

An interesting cautionary note, that bit about underperforming long-term.

Companies need to be careful that one-time accounting items and adjustments do help investors understand the business realities. Inflation in the gap between as-reported and “operating” earnings raises questions. For IR professionals, clarity in reporting (including consistent accounting approaches) should be the goal.

Earnings giggle

August 10, 2009

For a bit of comic relief check out “Mad Lib Earnings,” an all-too-true parody of earnings releases and the obligatory wire service stories that cover them. It’s Stanley Bing’s column on the last page of the August 17, 2009, Fortune magazine.

Bing’s fill-in-the-blanks earnings release makes our job easy. There’s a boilerplate quote from the CEO complete with an overwrought metaphor:

“These are tough times,” said Bob Boberts, chief executive officer of Big Fat Company. “Tough times call for tender chickens, and ours are the juiciest in what is, right now, a lean and stringy sector.”

We can choose between reporting a decline or “sad little incline” in second-quarter revenue. There’s a nod to cost cutting in “the elimination of nondairy creamer in offices nationwide.” Some optimistic-without-saying-much words from the COO.

And a wire service story, appearing five seconds after the release, offers jewels like:

“Results, schmesults,” said a quote monkey from an investment bank who’s always available to validate assumptions. “We’re going to downgrade them anyhow …”

I think we  know that sell side analyst who always take the reporters’ calls. And as a former newspaperman, I can enjoy the satire on journalism’s craft – we used to call quickie news stories with instant analysis “three phone calls and a cloud of dust.”

So there you have it. Investor relations and the financial news media continue getting the word out, for better or worse. We need a chuckle now and then.

CFOs: The future looks hazy

August 1, 2009

The good news is chief financial officers at the world’s top companies are a tad more optimistic than last quarter about when recovery will kick in and start benefitting their businesses, according to the Duke University/CFOGlobal Business Outlook Survey” reported in the magazine’s July-August 2009 issue.

CFO Survey July-Aug 09

Duke/CFO survey 2009

The bad news is – well, let’s skip over the CFOs’ plans to continue cutting workforces and capital spending. Underlying the bad news are two findings:

  • Most CFOs do not expect the US economy to begin recovery at least until 2010. The breakdown: 43% see an upturn starting in 2009, 50% in 2010 and 7% in 2011 or later. No wonder companies are still cutting costs.
  • The No. 1 concern for CFOs within their own companies remains the ability (or lack of ability) to forecast results. That makes business planning difficult, not to mention forward-looking discussions with investors.

CFO devotes a separate article (“Imperfect Futures“) to troubles companies are having with forecasting. When it comes to predicting the direction of sales or earnings, many more companies are invoking the “u” word – uncertainty. Says CFO:

Forecasting, never an activity companies felt particularly confident about, has now become nearly impossible. Processes that once results in mildly imperfect visions of the future now produce wildly imperfect ones.

The magazine cites some creative approaches, including collaborative efforts to identify new risks companies face in the marketplace, internal forecasting of which suppliers will survive or fail due to the recession, and prediction markets to draw out managers’ true feelings about the results they can deliver going forward.

For investor relations, the hazy economic future and its implications most likely will feed a continued trend away from companies providing specific earnings guidance. It’s even more important, then, for IROs to understand and communicate qualitative information on the key drivers – internal or external – of sales, costs and earnings.

Majority still offer guidance

May 19, 2009

Despite the wild economic ride we’re on, most companies haven’t stopped providing forward-looking guidance on earnings, according to a survey by the National Investor Relations Institute.

In an Executive Alert published May 18, NIRI says the practice of guidance continues to decline – but not very fast:

One might assume that the recent dramatic economic decline would necessarily result in a meaningful decline of public company guidance. Counterintuitively, NIRI member respondents have not abandoned guidance in large numbers.

A few highlights from the 2009 survey of 515 NIRI members:

  • 60% say they do provide earnings guidance, down from 64% a year ago. The ranges companies provide are wider amid economic uncertainties.
  • 50% of the companies offer guidance on revenues, also down a bit.
  • Guidance on annual expectations is most popular, with quarterly updates.
  • The most common reason for offering guidance is as a way to keep sell-side expectations in line with what seems reasonable to companies.
  • My own feeling is that the decision “To guide or not to guide?” is individual to each company. The answer depends on needs of your investors, comfort level of your management and board, predictability of your business and so on. In some cases, offering qualitative or quantitative views on earnings drivers such as trends in key markets in which you compete may be as useful as an EPS range.

    Point is, most investors assess the value of your stock based on some forward-looking estimate of earnings or cash flows – so IR needs to provide as much guidance as the company is comfortable providing.

    A company’s policy on guidance, NIRI suggests, should include decisions on metrics that management wants to give forward-looking information on, time frames for that guidance (annual, quarterly, monthly), and frequency of communicating guidance. NIRI also offers links to supplemental information for members (see the Executive Alert).

    So there it is – some guidance on guidance.