It’s the latest rage in financial reporting: to harp about and frown upon companies’ use of non-GAAP financial metrics.
The Securities and Exchange Commission has been squinting at non-GAAP measures of performance for a while now, wondering whether such metrics have become so convoluted that they mislead investors (“excluding reality, we had a great quarter”) or so common that investors can’t easily compare results of multiple companies. SEC Chief Accountant James Schnurr addressed non-GAAP metrics at a conference in March, saying he was “particularly troubled by the extent and nature of the adjustments to arrive at alternative financial measures of profitability, as compared to net income; and alternative measures of cash generation, as compared to the measures of liquidity or cash generation.”
Occasionally the SEC will sanction a company for a non-GAAP metric. In 2011, for example, the agency told Groupon it was less than pleased with the e-tailer’s “adjusted consolidated segment operating income.” Groupon stopped using the metric just before its IPO in November 2011, and then had to restate financials and disclose a material weakness within the first year of the IPO anyway. More recently, OM Asset Management had to delay its 2015 Form 10-K because of ongoing conversations with the SEC about its use of a non-GAAP metric it called “economic net income.” So non-GAAP metrics can definitely warrant skepticism.
That said, non-GAAP metrics aren’t always bad; sometimes they can provide illuminating glimpses into a company’s operations that traditional GAAP wouldn’t reveal. They are also allowed under Regulation G, which says non-GAAP disclosures are permissible so long as a company also discloses the most directly comparable GAAP metric, and reconciles the two.
The SEC currently has no specific plans to curb non-GAAP metrics, beyond the occasional speech chiding corporate filers to make sure the practice doesn’t get out of hand. If you want a detailed study of how large companies use non-GAAP metrics, visit the team at the Analyst’s Accounting Observer—they have conducted yearly studies since 2013, although the 2015 report is not out yet.
Here at Calcbench, we are working on a few plans to bring you more data about non-GAAP metrics and hope to announce more details later in the year. From an analysis perspective, non-GAAP is tricky because those metrics generally aren’t tagged in XBRL. You can find some non-GAAP metrics for specific companies right now, by researching their earnings releases or Form 8-Ks (where non-GAAP metrics are typically disclosed).
Then comes the task of reconciling those non-GAAP numbers back to their closest GAAP metrics—say, matching non-GAAP net income to “traditional” net income. That’s not always easy to do, especially if a company has errors in its numerical values or XBRL tags. So we’re on the case, and expect to have more non-GAAP functionality for our customers soon.
Meanwhile, if you want to mull over a controversial financial reporting subject—you found it.
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