We noted on Thursday, when Alcoa reported, that “non-recurring, one-time” charges are anything but; indicating just how freely the company abuses the non-GAAP EPS definition, and how adding back charges has become ordinary course of business. But it’s not just Alcoa, and as David Stockman, author The Gret Deformation, notes Wall Street’s institutionalized fiddle of GAAP earnings made P/E multiples appear far lower than they actually are, and thereby helps perpetuate the myth that the market is “cheap.”
Via David Stockman,
THE “EARNINGS EX-ITEMS” SMOKE SCREEN
One of the reasons that the monetary politburo was unconcerned about the blatant buying of earnings through financial engineering is that it fully subscribed to the gussied-up version of EPS peddled by Wall Street. The latter was known as “operating earnings” or “earning ex-items,” and it was derived by removing from the GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles)- based financial statements filed with the SEC any and all items which could be characterized as “one-time” or “nonrecurring.”
These adjustments included asset write-downs, goodwill write-offs, and most especially “restructuring” charges to cover the cost of head-count reductions, including severance payments. Needless to say, in an environment in which labor was expensive and debt was cheap, successive waves of corporate downsizings could be undertaken without the inconvenience of a pox on earnings due to severance costs; these charges were “one time” and to be ignored by investors.
Likewise, there was no problem with the high failure rate of M&A deals. In due course, dumb investments could be written off and the resulting losses wouldn’t “count” in earnings ex-items.
In short, Wall Street’s institutionalized fiddle of GAAP earnings made PE multiples appear far lower than they actually were, and thereby helped perpetuate the myth that the market was “cheap” during the second Greenspan stock market bubble. Thus, as the S&P 500 index reached its nosebleed peaks around 1,500 in mid-2007, Wall Street urged investors not to worry because the PE multiple was within its historic range.
In fact, the 500 S&P companies recorded net income ex-items of $730 billion in 2007 relative to an average market cap during the year of $13 trillion. The implied PE multiple of 18X was not over the top, but then it wasn’t on the level, either. The S&P 500 actually reported GAAP net income that year of only $587 billion, a figure that was 20 percent lower owing to the exclusion of $144 billion of charges and expenses that were deemed “nonrecurring.” The actual PE multiple on GAAP net income was 22X, however, and that was expensive by any historic standard, and especially at the very top of the business cycle.
During 2008 came the real proof of the pudding. Corporations took a staggering $304 billion in write-downs for assets which were drastically overvalued and business operations which were hopelessly unprofitable. Accordingly, reported GAAP net income for the S&P 500 plunged to just $132 billion, meaning that during the course of the year the average market cap of $10 trillion represented 77X net income.
To be sure, after the financial crisis cooled off the span narrowed considerably between GAAP legal earnings and the Wall Street “ex-items” rendition of profits, and not surprisingly in light of how much was thrown into the kitchen sink in the fourth quarter of 2008. Even after this alleged house cleaning, however, more than $100 billion of charges and expenses were excluded from Wall Street’s reckoning of the presumptively “clean” S&P earnings reported for both 2009 and 2010.
So, if the four years are taken as a whole, the scam is readily evident. During this period, Wall Street claimed that the S&P 500 posted cumulative net income of $2.42 trillion. In fact, CEOs and CFOs required to sign the Sarbanes-Oxley statements didn’t see it that way. They reported net income of $1.87 trillion. The difference was accounted for by an astounding $550 billion in corporate losses that the nation’s accounting profession insisted were real, and that had been reported because the nation’s securities cops would have sent out the paddy wagons had they not been.
During the four-year round trip from peak-to-bust-to-recovery, the S&P 500 had thus traded at an average market cap of $10.6 trillion, representing nearly twenty-three times the average GAAP earnings reported during that period. Not only was that not “cheap” by any reasonable standard, but it was also indicative of the delusions and deformations that the Fed’s bubble finance had injected into the stock market.
In fact, every dollar of the $550 billion of charges during 2007–2010 that Wall Street chose not to count represented destruction of shareholder value. When companies chronically overpaid for M&A deals, and then four years later wrote off the goodwill, that was an “ex-item” in the Wall Street version of earnings, but still cold corporate cash that had gone down the drain. The same was true with equipment and machinery write-off when plants were shut down or leases written off when stores were closed. Most certainly, there was destruction of value when tens of billions were paid out for severance, health care, and pensions during the waves of headcount reductions.
To be sure, some of these charges represented economically efficient actions under any circumstances; that is, when the Schumpeterian mechanism of creative destruction was at work. The giant disconnect, however, is that these actions and the resulting charges to GAAP income statements were not in the least “one time.” Instead, they were part of the recurring cost of doing business in the hot-house economy of interest rate repression, central bank puts, rampant financial speculation, and mercantilist global trade that arose from the events of August 1971.
The economic cost of business mistakes, restructurings, and balance sheet house cleaning can be readily averaged and smoothed, an appropriate accounting treatment because these costs are real and recurring. Accordingly, the four-year average experience for the 2007–2010 market cycle is illuminating.
The Wall Street “ex-item” number for S&P 500 net income during that period overstated honest accounting profits by an astonishing 30 percent. Stated differently, the time-weighted PE multiple on an ex-items basis was already at an exuberant 17.6X. In truth, however, the market was actually valuing true GAAP earnings at nearly 23X.
This was a truly absurd capitalization rate for the earnings of a basket of giant companies domiciled in a domestic economy where economic growth was grinding to a halt. It was also a wildly excessive valuation for earnings that had been inflated by $5 trillion of business debt growth owing to buybacks, buyouts, and takeovers.