Every quarter I have to be reminded that “earnings season” is again upon us. The ritual of public companies announcing their sales and profits from recent quarters that generates a lot of attention in the business press. And I always wonder why this is a big deal.
What really matters to investors, employees, customers and vendors is “what will your business be like next quarter, and year?” We really don’t much care about the past. What we really want to know is “what should we expect in the future?”
For example, two companies announce quarterly results. One has a Price/Earnings (P/E) multiple of 12.8 and a dividend yield of 2.05%. The other has a multiple of 13.0, and a yield of 3.05%. For both companies net earnings overall were pretty much flat, but Earnings Per Share (EPS) improved due to an aggressive stock repurchase program. Both companies say they have new products in the pipeline, but they conservatively estimate full year results for 2014 to be flat or maybe even declining.
Do you know enough to make a decision on whether to buy either stock? Both?
While both companies have similar results and forward looking statements, how you view that information is affected by your expectations for each company’s future. So, in other words, the actual results are pretty meaningless. They are interpreted through the lens of expectations, which controls your decision.
You can say Xerox has been irrelevant for years, and its products increasingly look unlikely to change its future course, so you are disheartened by results you see as unspectacular and likewise see no reason to own the stock. For Apple you could say the same thing, and bring up the growing competitor sales of Android-based products. Or, you might say that Apple is undervalued because you have great faith in the growth of mobile products sales and you believe new devices will spur Apple to even better results. Whatever your conclusion about the announced earnings, those conclusions are driven by your view of the future – not the actual results.
Another example. Two companies have billions in sales, and devote their discussion of company value to technology and the use of new technology to pioneer new markets. Both companies report they continue a string of losses, and have no projection for when losses will become profits. There are no dividends. There is no P/E multiple, because there is no E. There is no EPS, again because there is no E. One company is losing $12.86/share, the other is losing $.61/share. Again, do these results tell you whether to buy either, one or both?
What if the first one (with the larger losses) is Sears Holdings, and the latter is Tesla? Now, suddenly your view on the data changes – based upon your view of the future. Either Sears is on the precipice of a turnaround to becoming a major on-line retailer that will sell some real estate and leverage the balance of its stores to grow, so you buy it, or you think Sears has lost all relevancy and you don’t buy it. Either you think Tesla is an industry game changer, so you buy it, or you think it is an over-rated fad that will never become big enough to matter and the giant global auto companies will destroy it, so you don’t buy it. It’s your future view that guides your conclusions about past results.
The critical factor when reviewing earnings is actually not the reported results. The critical factor is what you think the future is for these 4 companies. No matter how good or bad the historical results, your decision about whether to own the stock, buy the company products, work for the company or join its vendor program all hinges on your view about the company’s future.
Which makes not only the “earnings season” hoopla foolish, but puts a pronounced question mark on how executives – especially CEOs – in public companies spend their time as it relates to reporting results.
Enormous energy is spent by most CEOs and their staff on managing earnings. From the beginning to the end of every quarter the CFO and his/her staff pour over weekly outcomes in divisions and functions to understand revenues and costs in order to gain advance knowledge on likely results. Then, for the next several days/weeks the CFO’s staff, with the CEO and the leadership team, will pour over those results to make a myriad number of adjustments – from depreciation and amortization to deferring revenue changing tax structures or time-matching various costs – in order to further refine the reported results. Literally thousands of person-hours will be devoted to managing the reported results in order to provide the number they think is most appropriate. And this cycle is repeated every quarter.
But how many hours will be spent by that same CEO and the leadership team managing expectations about the company’s next year? How much time do these leaders spend developing scenarios, and communications, that will describe their vision, in order to manage investor expectations?
While every company has a CFO leading a large organization dedicated to reporting historical results, how many companies have a like-powered C level exec managing the expectations, and leading a large staff to create and deliver communications about the future?
It seems pretty clear that most management teams should consider reallocating their precious resources. Instead of spending so much time managing earnings, they should spend more time managing expectations. If we think about the difference between Xerox and Apple, one is quickly aware of the difference the CEOs made in setting expectations. People still wax eloquently about the future vision for Apple created by CEO Steve Jobs, who’s been dead 2.5 years, while almost no one can tell you the name of Xerox’ CEO. If you think about the difference between Sears and Tesla one only needs to think briefly about the difference between the numbers driven hedge fund manager and cost-cutting CEO Ed Lampert compared with the “visionary” communications of Elon Musk.
Investors should all think long term. Investors should care completely about what the next 3 to 5 years will mean for companies in which they place their money. What sales and earnings are reported from months ago is pretty meaningless. What really matters is what is yet to happen.
What we don’t need is a lot of time spent talking about old earnings. What we need is a lot more time spent talking about the future, and what we should expect from our investments.
(Adam Hartung is the managing director at Spark Partners.)
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