When you're deciding whether or not to invest in a specific company, having a firm understanding of the
balance sheet is critical. So as another round of
earnings has been announced, now is a perfect time to look back at recent quarterly reports and identify companies that passed "balance sheets 101" and those that might be in trouble.
Winnebago Passed -- Barely
When it comes to earnings and balance sheets, inventory levels matter.
(WGO) most recent conference call, I was expecting to hear a lot of the typical current talk about how high energy prices, the slowing economy and systemic credit issues are negatively impacting the company's core recreational vehicle business. However, as I prepared for the call, I noted that while
are expecting a minor drop in
, actual sales are expected to take a dramatic decline.
The only way that Winnebago could possibly achieve this is trick was through cost control, accounting mechanics or tax benefits. Those are all matters which would we would ascertain from the
. However, there was much more to be concerned about with Winnebago.
Winnebago's "channel inventories" and "company inventories" are high. Channel inventories are products sold by the company to retail vendors, but remain unsold by those vendors. So what? As investors, we care about this metric because high channel inventories will decrease vendor orders from Winnebago as there is less of a need to replenish inventory. Company inventories were also high. This means that Winnebago over-produced inventory which the company could not sell to its retail distributors.
Either of these inventory metrics portends trouble. Taken together, as in Winnebago's case, this combination of high inventory levels could cause a disaster in future quarters.
There were more red flags on Winnebago balance sheet.
At the end of the quarter, the company held $54.2 million of investments in highly rated tax-exempt auction rate securities (ARS). These were recorded as "long-term" investments, whereas, prior to that, they were recorded as "short-term" investments.
What happened: during the quarter, the company was able to sell 10% of the investment portfolio, but by the time the quarter ended, almost every remaining holding experienced a full or partial "auction failure." The remaining
now range in duration from 16 years to 33 years.
Why is the turning of short-term assets into long term investments problematic? Winnebago had relied on the
nature of the auction rate securities, but it can no longer do so.
Winnebago's Balance Sheet Grade: D.
Merrill Lynch Passed (and Is Improving)
has a huge portfolio of
on its balance sheet -- the pricing of which has come under a great deal of scrutiny.
Merrill has been "
" its mortgage and credit portfolios for the last two quarters as the company seeks to price its balance sheet to market. As a result, Merrill's balance sheet,
position, credit worthiness and
were subject to great deal of speculation.
Merrill, which reported on April 17, was expected to write down its assets for a third straight quarter, this time for an additional $6 billion or so. Fears across Wall Street were that Merrill or
would suffer the same fate at
, which was brought to the brink of bankruptcy when it faced
a severe liquidity crisis
, despite statements to the contrary by company president Alan Schwartz.
As expected, when Merrill reported its quarterly results to investors, the company wrote down another
$6.6 billion in writedowns
. While that was not pleasant news to shareholders, Merrill did deliver some other balance sheet related information that clearly differentiated that company's liquidity profile from that of Bear Stearns:
Cash availability stood at $79 billion at the end of fourth quarter of 2007 and rose to $82 billion at the end of first quarter of 2008.
With over $100 billion of bank deposits, the firm has a stable source of funding.
loan "book" was reduced by a net $4 billion to $14 billion, which helps get Merrill's "risky" assets off their books.
Thus, unlike Bear Stearns, Merrill has taken a proactive approach to cleaning up its balance sheet in order to evade the grim reaper of bankruptcy and prepare the company for a return to a more normal operating condition.
Merrill Lynch's Balance Sheet Grade: C (but improving).
Delta-Northwest and XM-Sirius: Incomplete
Can two weak balance sheets make one solid balance sheet?
Sirius Satellite Radio
XM Satellite Radio
are currently at the altar waiting for regulatory approval to consummate their merger.
Delta Air Lines
Do these deals make sense from a balance sheet perspective?
Consider this: all four companies have debt-riddled balance sheets.
For the most part, these companies have not been very proficient at generating
, except when the source of that cash flow is issuing more debt. The satellite radio business has yet to generate consistent profits and the long term survival of the business model is still questioned by many investors and analysts. And the airline industry is experiencing another wave of
(three airlines filed for bankruptcy in the last month).
The motivation to merge these companies comes from the potential ability to generate profits (or fewer losses) and cash flow from operational efficiency. Theoretically, if this occurs the resulting financial condition may permit the
ratings agencies to upgrade the combined companies' credit ratings that would result in a lower cost of debt. Other than that, there is no benefit from a balance sheet perspective which would compel me to buy these companies pre- or post-
Cumulative Balance Sheet Grade: Incomplete.
General Electric Passed With Flying Colors
Sometimes bad earnings happened to balance sheets.
, one of the largest and most respected companies in the world, delivered
a significant earnings disappointment
that roiled the global financial markets.
What happened: GE succumbed to some of the problems in the credit markets and took some credit losses in the process. Plus, the domestic economy's weakness reflected on poor healthcare and appliance sales. As a result, GE reported a 7 cent lower-than-expected EPS for the quarter.
Beyond the negative headlines, if GE's financial services unit stood on its own, it would qualify as one of the largest
in the world. So GE earning 44 cents instead of 51 cents is not exactly signs of a deteriorating company, especially given the current economic and financial environment.
Upon closer inspection, had one listened to
the GE earnings call
, they would have been assured of the company's financial strength. Here are few highlights:
Operating cash flow of $4.9 billion.
Paid $3.0 billion in dividends.
Lowered debt level.
Still held $5 billion in cash.
Asset growth was 20%.
Unlike Merrill Lynch, GE did not have to shrink its balance sheet and the company was able to use its strong financial position to add new business.
GE's Balance Sheet Grade: A.
There are two major lessons that can be taken from these examples. First, investors and analysts should not use preconceived notions of earnings expectations to extrapolate conclusions as to the health of the company's balance sheet. Second, companies can and do take actions to clean up and improve their balance sheet.
Look for companies with leaders that focus on balance sheet management. My firm belief is that a profit and loss (income) statement is an excellent indication of a company's performance, but the balance sheet is the
indicator of a company's financial condition (see "
Balance Sheets: The Good, the Bad and the In-Between