A Peek Beneath Tesla's Non-GAAP Hood Reveals Nothing But Cockroaches
Back in August, we joked that in the Tesla Q2 earnings press-release the one most often used word was Non-GAAP (43 times). Conveniently, we provided a word cloud of the company's Q2 release for the visual learners to grasp just this:
That TESLA's earnings were an epic non-GAAP adjustment joke was only further cemented by the fact that the company itself provided a bridge between its GAAP and Non-GAAP earnings. Needless to say, the bottom line number was not kind to GAAP resulting in a nearly $60 million Net Income swing depending on which set of numbers was used.
Of course, back then TSLA stock was merely the latest bubble frenzy so pointing out the obvious, namely that the realty behind the numbers presented for public consumption was far uglier than most expected, was utterly meaningless.
Now, the euphoria is over and the story is different, as not only has the company's self-reported and erroneous record of making the safest car in the world gone up in, well, flames but the momentum appears terminally broken and following today's most recent 11% drop, TSLA stock could soon be headed for double digit territory again.
More importantly, however, the end of the momentum story means that those who care about such anachronisms as fundamentals can once again look beneath the hood of TSLA to get the true story of what is really going.
There, with the help of Bloomberg's forensic accounting sleuth Jonathan Weil one uncovers nothing but cockroaches.
Most companies that play the non-GAAP game goose their numbers by excluding expenses. Tesla does this, too. It backs out stock-based compensation, for example. But the biggest kick to its non-GAAP earnings comes from an increase in top-line revenue.
The company reported third-quarter non-GAAP revenue of $602.6 million, which was about 40 percent more than its GAAP revenue. It achieved such a boost by transforming $171.2 million of liabilities into sales.
Here’s how it worked. In April, Tesla started a new financing program under which customers have the option to sell their vehicles back to the company after three years for guaranteed minimum amounts. The accounting rules say Tesla can’t recognize all of the revenue immediately in those instances and must account for such transactions as leases. So after Tesla takes customers’ cash, it records liabilities for “deferred revenue” and “resale value guarantee” on its balance sheet.
Mahoney noted two main problems with including so much of those amounts in non-GAAP revenue. Some customers wouldn’t have chosen Tesla cars were it not for the financing program. So the non-GAAP revenue isn’t comparable to Tesla’s sales before the program began, and it may overstate the true growth and demand. Plus, by adding back the resale-value guarantee, the company “assumes that nobody is going to return the vehicle, for purposes of the non-GAAP revenue,” he said.
Lots of companies use gimmicky benchmarks in their earnings releases. What makes Tesla special is that it behaves as if it doesn’t know the proper way to present its non-GAAP numbers. In an ironic twist, two attorneys at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, which helped take Tesla public in 2010, penned a lengthy article in 2008 explaining the legal requirements and best practices for earnings releases; it’s still on the law firm’s website.
“GAAP comparison numbers in an earnings release must be set forth with equal or greater prominence to the non-GAAP numbers,” attorneys Steven Bochner and Richard Cameron Blake wrote. “For instance, if an issuer announces GAAP and non-GAAP earnings per share in its press release, it should report the GAAP earnings per share prior to the non-GAAP earnings per share.”
The bigger concern here should be what some investors call the “cockroach theory": Where there is one problem, there probably are more. Tesla has disclosed compliance failures before. In March, its management concluded that Tesla’s ‘‘internal control over financial reporting was ineffective as of Dec. 31, 2012.’’ Its auditor, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, concurred. In a related matter, Tesla had to restate its cash-flow numbers for much of 2011 and 2012. In its latest quarterly report, filed last week, Tesla said its controls still weren’t effective as of Sept. 30.
Because the only thing better than one flaming cockroach are many flaming cockroaches.
None of these flubs has been especially damaging. Yet taken together, they suggest a company that lacks basic skills in accounting and disclosure, which could be a serious problem for a young manufacturer with a $17 billion stock-market value that loses money and trades for 9.5 times its revenue for the past four quarters. The next time Tesla messes up because of poor controls, the consequences could be worse.
As Tesla said in its latest annual report: ‘‘If we are unable to assert that our internal control over financial reporting is effective, or if our independent registered public accounting firm is unable to express an opinion on the effectiveness of our internal controls, we could lose investor confidence in the accuracy and completeness of our financial reports, which would have a material adverse effect on the price of our common stock.’’
Oh well, at least the fully spontaneously combusted Tesla Model S (because the safest car in the world is never expected do something as silly as run over a metal object while on the road) makes for a very handy, if slightly smoldering, paperweight.
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