Yesterday’s earnings’ report by General Motors threw up some red flags that I reviewed here. In recent quarters, the media seemed to give quite a bit of coverage on GM’s earnings, but not so this time. I wanted to follow up and discuss what the financial news networks obviously will not.
The most glaring number that warrants further discussion was the $35 billion deferred tax valuation allowance. This tax credit is not allowed under GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) but that does not stop many companies from using it as they tout non-GAAP earnings. It is the huge amount of GM’s credit that makes it worthy of scrutiny. Let’s look at what other sources have to say about this confusing accounting strategy that saved GM from having to explain its GAAP earnings loss of about $30 billion.
The amount of deferred income tax is based on tax rates in effect when temporary differences originate. It is an income-statement-oriented approach. It emphasizes proper matching of expenses with revenues in the period when a temporary difference originates. Finally, it is not acceptable under GAAP. …Management can use changes in the allowance to “manipulate” NI (net income) by affecting income tax expense. Analysts should scrutinize these types of changes.
A valuation allowance depends a great deal on management assumptions – who’s to say how high a company’s future profits will be, and therefore whether the company will be able to take advantage of its deferred tax assets? If management changes its assumptions about future earnings, the valuation allowance changes, and the difference is reported as earnings, today. So, management at companies with valuation allowances can directly change reported earnings today by changing assumptions about earnings tomorrow. Changing a valuation allowance is one way that management can manage or manipulate its earnings.
Keep a watchful eye on valuation allowances. Because they’re based on very subjective estimates, they’re an easy way for management to manipulate earnings. For example, if a company has a $100 million valuation allowance to offset $100 million in DTAs, and management realizes it’s going to miss earnings by $2 million, it can make slightly more aggressive assumptions to release $2 million in its valuation allowance, which flows to net income and allows the company to meet earnings.
So, there you have it. I’ll let readers come to their own conclusions on the use of tax benefits on earnings numbers, but investors should be careful investing in companies that rely on accounting methods and non-GAAP earnings figures to tout their “success.” Lastly, I must add again that government-owned Ally Financial used this same exact strategy by claiming $1.3 billion of the deferred tax valuation allowance on their recent earnings, which would have been about flat under GAAP accounting. Draw your own conclusions from that, as well.
Mark Modica is an NLPC Associate Fellow.