By: George M. Wilson & Carol A. Stacey
The sometimes fuzzy distinction between non-GAAP liquidity measures and non-GAAP performance measures is a major concern of the SEC’s Non-GAAP Compliance and Disclosure Interpretations (C&DI’s) and the comment letters the Staff issues focused on this topic. In the middle of this grey question are EBITDA and “adjusted EBITDA”. Whether these measures are liquidity measures or performance measures can be a very complex, subjective question. To take some of the grey away the SEC included this C&DI in their May 2016 changes:
Question: If EBIT or EBITDA is presented as a performance measure, to which GAAP financial measure should it be reconciled?
Answer: If a company presents EBIT or EBITDA as a performance measure, such measures should be reconciled to net income as presented in the statement of operations under GAAP. Operating income would not be considered the most directly comparable GAAP financial measure because EBIT and EBITDA make adjustments for items that are not included in operating income. In addition, these measures must not be presented on a per share basis. See Question 102.05. (emphasis added) [May 17, 2016]
The last sentence in this answer is all about the potential confusion between EBITDA and cash flow from operations. GAAP and the SEC guidance specifically prohibit presenting cash flow per share because of the potential confusion between earnings per share and cash flow per share. (This goes all the way back to ASR 142 and old SFAS 95!) EBITDA, even when intended by management as an operations measure, is so close to this line that it cannot be presented on a per share basis.
In an interesting sequence of comment letters and responses the SEC has pushed its concerns about these kinds of non-GAAP measures to a new level. After a number of back and forth letters with a registrant focusing on whether a “non-GAAP adjusted net income” was a performance or liquidity measure the staff included this language in a late round comment:
Finally, in light of our discussions about this matter, we will evaluate the industry practices you described to us and consider whether additional comprehensive non-GAAP staff guidance is appropriate.
It is extremely unusual, as was even reported in The Wall Street Journal on February 13, 2017, to see a statement like this in a comment letter.
Even more eyebrow-raising is this comment in the SEC’s closing letter:
Although we do not agree with your view, in light of the circumstances, we have completed our review of your filing. We remind you that the company and its management are responsible for the accuracy and adequacy of their disclosures, notwithstanding any review, comments, action or absence of action by the staff. (emphasis added)
If you are presenting an EBITDA or similar measure it would be smart to review these letters.
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.