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Deferred Revenue: Steady As It Goes
Sunday, July 10, 2016

Every company has a certain rhythm to its revenue cycle, but during one recent expedition into the Calcbench databases we were struck by patterns of deferred revenue—and how steady those numbers have been as a portion of corporate revenue overall.

Deferred revenue is revenue that will hit a company’s coffers sometime in the future, but not within the period of the company’s current financial filing. For example, a software company might sign a customer to a $100 million services agreement: $20 million to install the software today, plus $20 million at the end of each year for the next four years.

The $20 million installation payment counts as immediate revenue. The other $80 million is deferred revenue, which cannot be recognized until the software company fulfills each year of the contract. So the next $20 million is current deferred revenue, because it is due within 12 months; the remaining $60 million is non-current deferred revenue due in the following three years.

A spike in deferred revenue could mean a company is shifting its basic strategy, perhaps from delivering physical goods to performing long-term services. It could also be an omen of temporary cash crunches, if the business has regular fixed costs but revenue can’t be recognized until terms of the contract are fulfilled far in the future.

Well, we went looking at deferred revenue as a portion of total revenue for all corporate filers, for the last five years. Taken as a whole, spikes are hard to find. Consider this chart:

Avg Revenue per Filer Avg Deferred Revenue per Filer Pct. of Filers With Deferred Rev Deferred Rev as Pct. of Total
2015 $2,739,422,144 $181,322,570 29.9% 6.62%
2014 $2,562,254,976 $163,499,056 30.0% 6.38%
2013 $2,315,176,223 $152,460,866 28.9% 6.59%
2012 $2,197,653,145 $151,285,186 28.0% 6.88%
2011 $2,080,884,336 $134,472,919 27.5% 6.46%

So deferred revenue is becoming a slightly larger portion of all revenue. That’s partly because the percentage of filers reporting deferred revenue is up, and partly because the amount of deferred revenue itself is larger—but you can’t call a rise from 6.46 percent in 2011 to 6.62 percent in 2015 a “spike,” per se.

That’s one look at deferred revenue for corporate filers in total. How does the picture look for the S&P 500? Specific numbers are different, but the trend is essentially the same:

Avg Revenue per Filer Avg Deferred Revenue per Filer Pct. of Filers With Deferred Rev Deferred Rev as Pct. of Total
2015 $20,989,977,863 $1,625,615,588 25.2% 7.74%
2014 $21,592,289,139 $1,668,640,315 25.5% 7.73%
2013 $20,738,170,675 $1,638,910,960 25.2% 7.90%
2012 $20,113,637,962 $1,485,976,585 25.1% 8.12%
2011 $19,547,140,902 $1,485,976,585 25.0% 7.60%

You can’t call that a spike either.

Over the long term, one crucial question will be how companies apply the impending new revenue recognition standard to deferred revenue. That standard redefines business deals as a series of performance obligations—and you can only recognize the revenue from a deal in phases, as each performance obligation is fulfilled.

For services-oriented businesses, translating business contracts into a series of performance obligations may be tricky. The Financial Accounting Standards Board and audit firms have killed billions of electrons pounding out guidance on how to implement the new standard, and they’ll continue to do so for years to come.

The good news: the standard isn’t effective until 2018. The bad news: corporations have a long history of dragging their feet on implementing new reporting standards—one might call it “deferred planning”—and then panicking at the 11th hour. We’ll see if that pattern holds steady in years to come, too.

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