Measuring Accounting Earnings and Profitability

Since income can be generated from a number of different sources, generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) require that income statements be classified into four sections: income from continuing operations, income from discontinued operations, extraordinary gains or losses and adjustments for changes in accounting principles.

Generally accepted accounting principles require the recognition of revenues when the service for which the firm is getting paid has been performed in full or substantially and for which it has received in return either cash or a receivable that is both observable and measurable. Expenses linked directly to the production of revenues (like labor and materials) are recognized in the same period in which revenues are recognized. Any expenses that are not directly linked to the production of revenues are recognized in the period in which the firm consumes the services.

While accrual accounting is straightforward in firms that produce goods and sell them, there are special cases where accrual accounting can be complicated by the nature of the product or service being offered. For instance, firms that enter into long term contracts with their customers, for instance, are allowed to recognize revenue on the basis of the percentage of the contract that is completed. As the revenue is recognized on a percentage of completion basis, a corresponding proportion of the expense is also recognized. When there is considerable uncertainty about the capacity of the buyer of a good or service to pay for a service, the firm providing the good or service may recognize the income only when it collects portions of the selling price under the installment method.

Reverting back to our discussion of the difference between capital and operating expenses, operating expenses should reflect only those expenses that create revenues in the current period. In practice, however, a number of expenses are classified as operating expenses that do not seem to meet this test. The first is depreciation and amortization. While the notion that capital expenditures should be written off over multiple periods is reasonable, the accounting depreciation that is computed on the original historical cost often bears little resemblance to the actual economical depreciation. The second expense is research and development expenses, which accounting standards in the United States classify as operating expenses, but which clearly provide benefits over multiple periods. The rationale used for this classification is that the benefits cannot be counted on or easily quantified.

Much of financial analysis is built around the expected future earnings of a firm, and many of these forecasts start with the current earnings. It is therefore important that we know how much of these earnings come from the ongoing operations of the firm, and how much can be attributed to unusual or extraordinary events that are unlikely to recur on a regular basis. From that standpoint, it is useful that firms categorize expenses into operating and nonrecurring expenses, since it is the earnings prior to extraordinary items that should be used in forecasting. Nonrecurring items include the following:

1. Unusual or Infrequent items, such as gains or losses from the divestiture of an asset or division and write-offs or restructuring costs. Companies sometimes include such items as part of operating expenses. As an example, Boeing in 1997 took a write-off of $1,400 million to adjust the value of assets it acquired in its acquisition of McDonnell Douglas, and it showed this as part of operating expenses.

2. Extraordinary items, which are defined as events that are unusual in nature, infrequent in occurrence and material in impact. Examples include the accounting gain associated with refinancing high coupon debt with lower coupon debt, and gains or losses from marketable securities that are held by the firm.

3. Losses associated with discontinued operations, which measure both the loss from the phase out period and the estimated loss on the sale of the operations. To qualify, however, the operations have to be separable separated from the firm.

4. Gains or losses associated with accounting changes, which measure earnings changes created by accounting changes made voluntarily by the firm (such as a change in inventory valuation and change in reporting period) and accounting changes mandated by new accounting standards.

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