This Day On The Street
Continue to site
This account is pending registration confirmation. Please click on the link within the confirmation email previously sent you to complete registration.
Need a new registration confirmation email? Click here

Greenberg: Buffett Tells Investors to Get Real About EBITDA

SAN DIEGO (TheStreet) -- The best part about Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A - Get Report)(BRK.B - Get Report) CEO Warren Buffett's annual investor letters is that they always provide some kind of reality check.

This year, in one sentence, he takes on one of the biggest diversion tactics of all -- one promulgated by many companies as the way they should be viewed and then gullibly accepted by investors: EBITDA or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization.

"When Wall Streeters tout EBITDA as a valuation guide, button your wallet," he wrote.

Here's the windup to that comment (emphasis added by me):

Must Read: Greenberg: What ITT Education Doesn't Say in its Defense

I won't explain all of the adjustments - some are tiny and arcane - but serious investors should understand the disparate nature of intangible assets: Some truly deplete over time while others in no way lose value. With software, for example, amortization charges are very real expenses.

Charges against other intangibles such as the amortization of customer relationships, however, arise through purchase-accounting rules and are clearly not real costs. GAAP accounting draws no distinction between the two types of charges. Both, that is, are recorded as expenseswhen earnings are calculated -- even though from an investor's viewpoint they could not be more different.

In the GAAP-compliant figures we show on page 29, amortization charges of $648 million for the companies included in this section are deducted as expenses. We would call about 20% of these "real," the rest not.

This difference has become significant because of the many acquisitions we have made. It will almost certainly rise further as we acquire more companies.

Eventually, of course, the non-real charges disappear when the assets to which they're related become fully amortized. But this usually takes 15 years and -- alas -- it will be my successor whose reported earnings get the benefit of their expiration.

Every dime of depreciation expense we report, however, is a real cost. And that's true at almost all other companies as well. When Wall Streeters tout EBITDA as a valuation guide, button your wallet.

Our public reports of earnings will, of course, continue to conform. To embrace reality, however, remember to add back most of the amortization charges we report.

Buffett might as well, however, be hollering into a hollow hole. Concerns over the over-use of EBITDA to justify stock prices is decades old. I wrote a piece in Fortune about it in 1998 and again in 2000.

Since then, just eyeballing it, EBITDA if anything has been more widely accepted. And if not EBITDA, "adjusted" earnings that adjust out almost anything and everything including the kitchen sink. As an example, look no further than Valeant Pharmaceuticals (VRX - Get Report):

To supplement the financial measures prepared in accordance with U.S. generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), the company uses non-GAAP financial measures that exclude certain items, such as amortization of inventory step-up, amortization of alliance product assets & property, plant and equipment step up, stock-based compensation step-up, contingent consideration fair value adjustments, restructuring, acquisition-related and other costs, In-process research and development, impairments and other charges, ("IPR&D"), legal settlements outside the ordinary course of business, the impact of currency fluctuations, amortization and other non-cash charges, amortization including intangible asset impairments and write-down of deferred financing costs, debt discounts and ASC 470-20 (FSP APB 14-1) interest, loss on extinguishment of debt, (gain) loss on assets sold/held for sale/impairment, net, (gain) loss on investments, net, and adjusts tax expense to cash taxes.


Of course, in the trigger-finger happy, momentum-driven investing world we currently live in, little details like that take a back seat to charts, technicals and anything and everything but the numbers that count.

Reality: Until they do!

Reminder: Herb Greenberg's Reality Check newsletter is up and running.

-- Written by Herb Greenberg in San Diego

Herb Greenberg, editor of Herb Greenberg's Reality Check, is a contributor to CNBC. He does not own shares, short or trade shares in an individual corporate security. He can be reached at


Chart of I:DJI
DOW 16,014.38 -12.67 -0.08%
S&P 500 1,852.21 -1.23 -0.07%
NASDAQ 4,268.7630 -14.99 -0.35%

Herb's Tweets

Select the service that is right for you!

Action Alerts PLUS

Portfolio Manager Jim Cramer and Director of Research Jack Mohr reveal their investment tactics while giving advanced notice before every trade.

Product Features:
  • $2.5+ million portfolio
  • Large-cap and dividend focus
  • Intraday trade alerts from Cramer
  • Weekly roundups
Real Money Pro

All of Real Money, plus 15 more of Wall Street's sharpest minds delivering actionable trading ideas, a comprehensive look at the market, and fundamental and technical analysis.

Product Features:
  • Real Money + Doug Kass Plus 15 more Wall Street Pros
  • Intraday commentary & news
  • Ultra-actionable trading ideas
Trifecta Stocks

Trifecta Stocks analyzes over 4,000 equities weekly to find the elite 1% of stocks that pass rigorous quantitative, fundamental and technical tests.

Product Features:
  • Model portfolio
  • Trade alerts
  • Recommendations for over 4,300 stocks
  • Unlimited research reports on your favorite stocks
Stocks Under $10

David Peltier uncovers low dollar stocks with serious upside potential that are flying under Wall Street's radar.

Product Features:
  • Model portfolio
  • Stocks trading below $10
  • Intraday trade alerts
  • Weekly roundups
Quant Ratings

Access the tool that DOMINATES the Russell 2000 and the S&P 500.

Product Features:
  • Buy, hold, or sell recommendations for over 4,300 stocks
  • Unlimited research reports on your favorite stocks
  • A custom stock screener
  • Upgrade/downgrade alerts
Dividend Stock Advisor

David Peltier identifies the best of breed dividend stocks that will pay a reliable AND significant income stream.

Product Features:
  • Diversified model portfolio of dividend stocks
  • Alerts when market news affect the portfolio
  • Bi-weekly updates with exact steps to take - BUY, HOLD, SELL
Growth Seeker

Chris Versace, using sophisticated stock screening and fundamental research, identifies potentially explosive small and mid-cap stocks.

Product Features:
  • Model portfolio
  • Small-cap and mid-cap focus
  • Intraday trade alerts
  • Weekly roundups
Daily Swing Trade

Master swing trader Alan Farley uses his sophisticated software screens to review thousands of stocks each day for you, to find just the handful that meet his demanding criteria.

Product Features:
  • Daily commentary and coaching on swing trading
  • Technical charts and analysis
Top Rated Stocks Top Rated Funds Top Rated ETFs