From my limited experience, assessing equity from balance sheet information can be a non-trivial exercise. An issue is the company's assets. Specifically, what are those assets? How were they acquired? What was the accounting treatment?

I've been involved in situations where companies debated the merits of expensing capital costs and capitalizing expenses. Accountants tend to see this question as a black and white issue. Financial officers tend see it as a strategic issue.

The issue frequently arises in project finance. In particular, long-term capital improvement projects tend to finish with complex cost structures. In my experience, capitalized costs can represent half expenses and half assets (bricks and sticks). Some of those expenses include officer salaries, professional fees, corporate allocations and other distributables. In the end, retirement accounts prorate those costs according to the strategic need of the parent company. Once the accountants retire the plant (that is, allocate final costs across company retirement accounts), the asset capex strategy is locked in.

The issue also appears in operations and maintenance. Sometimes replacing expensive equipment is expensed. Sometimes it is capitalized. Often, there is a combination. Again, accountants tend to see this as a black and white issue. Financing, legal and regulatory people understand it as a strategic issue.

The issue pops up in special cases. It is common for utilities to create regulatory assets out of expenses. They do this with the knowledge and approval of their respective state regulators.

I've found the accounting of assets is not consistent within the utility industry. Policies change over time and by geography. They change as economic conditions change. They also change as corporate administrations change.

Finally, there are the subsequent issues of asset depreciation and mark-to-market values. While depreciation appears simple, it is not. How depreciation schedules are developed and used is complex and difficult [impossible] for third parties to analyze. In addition, the depreciated value of the asset is often uncorrelated to the asset's mark-to-market value.

For me, assets can be fuzzy numbers. Any analysis using asset values as a critical component can also be fuzzy.

Ed Stewart writes: 

All good points Carder.

Another issue is when a company clearly has very valuable intangible assets that are almost completely unrepresented on the balance sheet. Consider Nathan's Famous, best known for its flagship hotdog restaurant and sponsorship of the eating contest. They build on top of that brand value to create a licensing business. Last year (ending march 31) they did 18M of this business, which is almost pure pre-tax profit as they just get a % of sales, renting the brand to a manufacturer/distributor. Capitalize that at a reasonable rate (licensing revenue streams usually valued at a premium) u see it is worth quite a bit of money. Yet, on the balance sheet intangible assets is only something like 1.4M, which is absurd from an economic perspective. 

Stefan Jovanovich writes: 

Accounting was developed to catch internal fraud; the whole point of double-entry was that it required two different people to keep track of every transaction. As long as enterprises were family businesses, single-entry worked just fine (as, for example, in the Rothschilds' books well into the 19th century). In that sense, all "book" numbers will be maddeningly disappointing in terms of their economic logic.

Rocky Humbert writes: 

S-man makes an excellent point. To wit, some of my worst investments have been in insurance company stocks that were trading at significant discounts to their stated tangible book value. What seems to happen (with annoying regularity) is that the company "discovers" that they under-reserved for claims and they write-off massive amounts of tangible equity — leaving the stock at a premium to book value. Hence I view a substantial discount to book value as a warning sign of impending bad news rather than a blue plate special. Mr. Market may go through bipolar episodes, but he's quite astute most of the time.

Ed Stewart writes:

Ive seen another situation beyond unforeseen markdowns that can cause trouble for an investor looking at book value to find undervaluation. The issue occurs when an investor marks book value assets "to market" and finds a supposedly huge undervaluation. The first problem I have seen is that it is very easy for a bad or even mediocre business with a good asset to somehow encumber or use that asset in a way that is not helpful to shareholders - feeding a lousy "growth initiative" or simply mortgaging an asset to fund continued operations. It's amazing how many "value bloggers" write about truly crappy, sketchy businesses because they think they spot this type of situation.

In the case where the business is decent, that by no means the business is going to realize the value of the asset over any reasonable time frame, which means that the value must be discounted far off into the future. So far and so uncertain it might be impossible to assign much value to it at all. In this second case, it might add some positive option value to a decent business that is otherwise worth considering, nothing more. My conclusion is that without an activist situation or change of heart by the CEO or some similar circumstance, undervalued assets are not always what they are cracked up to be.

Gary Rogan comments: 

A bet on undervalued assets IS a bet on an activist situation and/or if not "change of heart by he CEO" change of the CEO. Undervalued assets will not of course suddenly start performing by themselves. That's why "undervalued" cash on the books or undervalued assets combined with a substantial cash flow are so much better than an "undervalued" steel plant or similar: cash is easy to understand and reuse and attracts activists, acquirers, and CEO replacement.

Andrew Goodwin writes:

Not sure why the talk on ratios attracted so much interest. In a group that favors scientific modeling, why no thoughts on finding the significance of each industry valuation ratio through regression studies? 

Charles Pennington writes: 

Stefan, what's your definition of "soft jobs"? Do you have an opinion about which companies out there are wasting their money on "soft jobs" and which are acting more wisely?

Stefan Jovanovich replies:

This is a feeble answer to your question, Charles, but it is all I have. Cantillon wrote that nations got into trouble when their tastes for what he called "luxury" outran their capacities to make enough money to pay for them in foreign trade. He was not a mercantilist, but he thought that nations had to accept the verdict of the foreign exchange market when it went against them. They could not use "Chinese paper" (Singleton's phrase for puffed-up securities) when their counter-parties expected coin. As Cantillon put it, nations cannot use use finance as a substitute for commerce and they cannot indefinitely leverage their credit so that rich men's wives could continue buying more lace. For at least some of the time, even the wealthy have to endure being less rich until trade once again comes into something approaching balance.

It seems to me that many, many companies are now like Cantillon's luxurious nation. David's drug companies are one set. Their profits are projected to continue to grow enormously even as the savings and earnings of the hospitals and governments and individual paying customers have stagnated and even begun to fall again. The drug companies' happy futures are based on the assumption that the centrally-banked remedies to the world's savings "glut" can somehow be transmuted into continuing demand without anyone having to endure even temporary insolvency. There is no arguing that the plan has worked up to now (cue John Hussman's explanations of why he has missed the last 5+ years). But, as the Orioles and other clubs regularly demonstrate, the last innings can be very rough even when the guys coming in from the bullpen have had such sterling records.

P.S. Ignore all monetary puns; this is not a recommendation to buy gold.





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