It seems that most investors today are oblivious as to the language of accounting. They would rather look at headline figures presented in financial media than actually dig through an annual report. Even famed investor Terry Smith once mentioned that analyst – the people that are paid to scrutinise a companies performance – don’t usually read a full set of accounts. But if you want to be an investor in individual stocks, it imperative that you learn the language of accounting. The accounts give you the clearest picture of a business and where it is headed. The accounts can show you weather a companies earnings are real or if they are just being magicked up. Conversely, knowing accounting and its intricate rules can help you understand a balance sheet and find hidden value in companies.
Warren Buffet, in his 1982 Berkshire Hathaway shareholders letter, has perhaps provided the best example as to why understanding how accounts works is imperative to any investor. In the letter, Buffet explained the accounting realities that come into play based on whether or not you own at least 20% of a company in which you invest.
Here is the extract from the 1982 letter:
“The appended financial statements reflect “accounting” earnings that generally include our proportionate share of earnings from any underlying business in which our ownership is at least 20%. Below the 20% ownership figure, however, only our share of dividends paid by the underlying business units is included in our accounting numbers; undistributed earnings of such less-than-20%-owned businesses are totally ignored.
There are a few exceptions to this rule; e.g., we own about 35% of GEICO Corporation but, because we have assigned our voting rights, the company is treated for accounting purposes as a less-than-20% holding. Thus, dividends received from GEICO in 1982 of $3.5 million after tax are the only item included in our “accounting”earnings. An additional $23 million that represents our share of GEICO’s undistributed operating earnings for 1982 is totally excluded from our reported operating earnings. If GEICO had earned less money in 1982 but had paid an additional $1 million in dividends, our reported earnings would have been larger despite the poorer business results. Conversely, if GEICO had earned an additional $100 million – and retained it all – our reported earnings would have been unchanged. Clearly “accounting” earnings can seriously misrepresent economic reality.
We prefer a concept of “economic” earnings that includes all undistributed earnings, regardless of ownership percentage. In our view, the value to all owners of the retained earnings of a business enterprise is determined by the effectiveness with which those earnings are used – and not by the size of one’s ownership percentage. If you have owned .01 of 1% of Berkshire during the past decade, you have benefited economically in full measure from your share of our retained earnings, no matter what your accounting system. Proportionately, you have done just as well as if you had owned the magic 20%. But if you have owned 100% of a great many capital-intensive businesses during the decade, retained earnings that were credited fully and with painstaking precision to you under standard accounting methods have resulted in minor or zero economic value. This is not a criticism of accounting procedures. We would not like to have the job of designing a better system. It’s simply to say that managers and investors alike must understand that accounting numbers are the beginning, not the end, of business valuation.
In most corporations, less-than-20% ownership positions are unimportant (perhaps, in part, because they prevent maximization of cherished reported earnings) and the distinction between accounting and economic results we have just discussed matters little. But in our own case, such positions are of very large and growing importance. Their magnitude, we believe, is what makes our reported operating earnings figure of limited significance.”
Basically, it works like this: if you own less than 20% of a company, your balance sheet only reflects the dividends that the company pays to you on the balance sheet. If you own more than 20% of the company, your balance sheet reflects both the dividends that the company pays you and the retained earnings that the company keeps.
Knowing a simple accounting quirk like the above can help you determine the true value of a conglomerate like Berkshire Hathaway. As a writer and investor, I have mentioned many times the importance of accountancy knowledge and this post just goes to prove why. For investors not well versed in accounting or not willing to learn, it is perhaps best to invest in low cost index funds.