Exit and Growth Strategies for Middle Market Businesses

Re-Casting of Earnings Analyses v. “Just the Facts Ma’am”

By Peter Heydenrych | Jun 10, 2019

In his May 15 Wall Street Journal Article “Tech Firms’ Creativity Meets Investor Reality”, Rolfe Winkler looks at the creative ways in which recent big startups going public, have come up with unusual, alternative ways for measuring their performance.

Uber and Lyft, Mr. Winkler’s examples, seem to be explaining their losses by offering up an IPO version of “the dog ate my homework” excuse for poor performance. Uber had a $3 billion operating loss last year, but presented an argument, that, on a “core platform contribution” basis, it actually made a profit of $940 million!

Comments on Mr. Winkler’s article include views that suggest some acceptability of the “alternative metrics”, provided that full and clear disclosure is made of how the conclusions were reached.

In the private M&A market, calculating earnings/profits by adjusting historic booked and even future earnings is very common. Is it a fair practice? GAAP provides detailed rules for calculating earnings, and FINRA holds its Broker-Dealer members to strict account on the question of “making promises about benefits including future profits.” Yet almost every private M&A transaction is negotiated around arguments that the “Re-Cast EBITDA”, a number often materially different than the booked EBITDA, should be used in place of the booked EBITDA.

For purposes of presenting “alternative ways to present performance”, private M&A transactions hold one significant advantage over the public buying and selling of securities, including IPOs, because private transactions are generally negotiated with full disclosure to buyer and seller and the Investment Banking, Legal and Tax professionals who advise them. Ample opportunity exists for the buyer to conduct a self-designed due diligence investigation which, in turn, will usually include scrutiny by the other professionals mentioned above.

Regarding “alternative metrics” or “Re-Cast EBITDA”, there is only one rule: “There are no rules!” Of course, both parties must agree, so that becomes the rule. The “Re-Cast Adjustments” that the seller seeks to present, and the buyer must accept for there to be an agreement, usually fall into 4 categories:

  1. Revenues and costs which will not continue after the sale
  2. Revenues and costs which were booked historically as a result of an extraordinary, non-recurring event
  3. Revenue and cost adjustments which will result from the engagement of synergistic benefits which the transaction will trigger
  4. Revenues and costs which the buyer will eliminate as a result of implementing strategic decisions (which the buyer won’t necessarily want the seller to be aware of)

Sometimes GAAP will even come to the rescue, permitting the capitalization of costs which can be demonstrated to build asset value with future benefit, such as the funding of IP creation with a view to generating earnings over subsequent years. For this and other reasons, often relating to the patterns of capital expenditure required to sustain the business model, the buyer will look at cash flows instead of or in addition to EBITDA earnings.

Re-Cast Adjustments are generally made to the historic results. The buyer is working to estimate future results, but is relying on historic results as an indicator. The buyer will also want to negotiate a purchase price based on historic results, arguing that he is paying only for what has already been created. The seller, on the other hand, is looking to paint as rosy a picture of the future as possible, arguing that the future is what the buyer is really getting and should be paying for. Again, there are no rules, only the need for the parties to agree.

A second measure to protect the buyer is often employed when the Parties are not, or are not equally, confident about the future and the valuation it will yield. An “Earn-Out” construct is not available to public market Parties, but is often used by private transaction parties. In an Earn-Out, the buyer promises to pay more money, but only if certain future performance or other criteria are met.

So, in a private sale of a business, there would seem to be a good argument supporting the idea that the seller should have the opportunity to claim an, as yet, unrealized vision, or to offer an alternative measure of the pro forma profitability of the company. The buyer can check the claims thoroughly and can even set aside some part of the consideration pending the successful achievement of a future milestone. Of course, this approach is justified only by the engagement of two fully advised, experienced and knowledgeable parties, who can, and do, engage in a thorough examination and negotiation of a transaction in circumstances which can be argued to be fully transparent.

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