Metrics, measures of performance drivers outside the financial statements, have become a larger part of how companies communicate with investors in recent years. As with all communication tools, a carefully planned, balanced presentation is important. Well-designed metrics can provide greater insight into the fundamentals of a company’s operations.
As with other elements of financial reporting, metrics can be misused. A metric could be poorly designed and not really correlate with financial performance. A metric could also be misstated or manipulated.
Poorly Designed Metrics
Many tech companies have complex and hard to understand revenue models. Measures such as “daily active users” and “monthly active users” can help users understand a company’s performance. That said, the link between the metric and performance needs to be clear. The CorpFin Staff has written many comments about this issue. Here are a couple of examples:
- In your various quarterly earnings calls, we note your discussion of the performance of your business in terms of the “add/quit metric” and “uniform wearer losses” (based upon changes in the number of uniform wearers within particular sectors of your customer base). We further note this is your fourth consecutive quarter of negative uniform wearer losses. Please expand your MD&A to include this information as well as a discussion of any trends or uncertainties. Additionally, the add/stop metric appears to have a meaningful impact on operating margins and growth rate. Please expand your disclosure to provide a complete picture of the relationship between the add/quit metric, operating margins, and growth rate for each material sector of your customer base. Please refer to Item 303(a)(3) of Regulation S-K and Section III.B.1. of SEC Release 33-8350.
- We note your statement that your results are highly dependent on comparable store sales. We further note that your comparable store sales have declined over the last three years and within each year have generally declined each quarter. We also note your statements that your comparable store sales are difficult to predict in the current competitive landscape and may get marginally worse before they get better. Given the importance of this metric to your results and its significant decline over the last three fiscal years, please tell us and disclose in more detail the factors that contributed to this decline, such as any significant declines in prices, including significant increases in your promotional activity, any significant declines in the volume of items sold, any change in the mix of products being sold or any other material factors that had a significant impact on the decline in your comparable store sales. While this decline in comparable store sales may ultimately be driven by your competitive environment, we believe a more detailed discussion of changes in intermediate factors such as price and volume will provide more transparency to your investors as to how you are affected by this competition, any steps management has taken to mitigate the impact of this competition and the success of management’s strategies. Refer to Item 303(a)(3)(iii) of Regulation S-K and SEC Release No. 33-8350.
Misstated Metrics and Enforcement
When companies present metrics, they should be very careful to use a balanced approach to the information and use the metric consistently to avoid presenting potentially misleading information. We discussed many of these issues in our One-Hour Briefing about Non-GAAP Measures and Metrics. You can find the briefing at:
One really “old school” example metric would be the financial ratio gross margin. It is not a non-GAAP measure so long as it is computed using the revenues, cost of sales and gross margin lines on a company’s income statement. For retailers, it is a crucial measure of performance. Gross margin trend over time can have a significant impact on how investors view a retailer.
In a recent enforcement case the SEC fined a large outdoor products retailer and its CFO for manipulating their gross margin and then misstating why gross margin changed. The source of the issue was a fee the company charged to its wholly owned banking subsidiary. In the retailer’s financial statements the fee was used to reduce cost of sales and thus increase gross margin. Such a fee would normally be eliminated in consolidation. Here though, the company failed to eliminate this intercompany transaction. As a result, in the consolidated financial statements the net income of the financing part of the business was understated and the gross margin of the retailing part of the business was overstated. Additionally, the company did not disclose that this intercompany fee had increased their gross margin and actually attributed the increase to other causes.
Here is a quote from the enforcement order:
This in turn increased ——– merchandise gross margin percentage, a key company-specific financial metric that signaled the profitability of the company and was referenced by the company in earnings releases and analysts calls.
The end result: Enforcement!
And, a clear message, manipulating metrics can get a company into just as much trouble as manipulating the financial statements!
You can read the enforcement release at:
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome!