Investors should consider factoring in goodwill when they are examining the value of a stock, because it can often predict the outlook of a company, especially serial acquirers.
Retail investors should care about the amount of goodwill included in a company's valuation even though it is often ignored, said Michael Berger, founder of Technical420, a Miami-based company that conducts research on cannabis stocks. A company's goodwill represents its brand reputation, loyalty, along with patents or proprietary technology and adds significant value.
"We think this is somewhat related to the rise of cult stocks and 'unicorn' investments," he said. "Many investors do not care about the amount of goodwill in companies like Tesla (TSLA) or Netflix (NFLX) ."
While goodwill is often underplayed, it remains one of the most important balance sheet indicators to determine what a company is doing, said Edison Byzyka, chief investment officer of Hefty Wealth Partners in Auburn, Ind.
"Goodwill is the residual amount of what a company is worth and the value that someone will pay for it," he said.
Firms such as Coca Cola (KO) , General Electric (GE) , International Business Machine (IBM) and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) routinely have 20% to 30% of their intangible assets in goodwill. For publicly-traded companies, goodwill is the difference between the total assets and total tangible assets, said K.C. Ma, a CFA and director of the Roland George investments program at Stetson University in Deland, Fla.
"Shareholders can consider that goodwill is the intangible portion of the assets they pay for," he said. "Maybe a more relevant question is that why the market is willing to pay a positive value to goodwill or some asset which is intangible."
When the goodwill of a company is deemed positive due to the "perceived value from the visionary founders or management's personal fame and charisma," it can boost a stock's valuation, Ma said.
"Loyal followers of Tesla's Elon Musk and Under Armour's Kevin Plank consistently pay premium for founders' promises and both companies have 20-30% of goodwill on their books," he said. "There are always investors willing to pay for high-growth stories which have neither revenue or profit in sight. For an unproven business model, what shareholders are paying is all goodwill."
When companies face scrutiny from the public and regulators because of customer service complaints, food service crises or large data breaches, goodwill can be affected.
It is questionable whether the perception of a decline of goodwill has a long-term impact on a stock's price like Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) , Sears (SHLD) and United Continental (UAL) , experts said.
The amount of goodwill factored in retailers which have reported declining sales for years is also confounding, said Patrick Morris, CEO of New York-based HAGIN Investment Management. At the end of the third quarter, Sears' balance sheet showed $1.9 billion in trade names and other intangible assets.
"It's a total mystery to me," he said.
The $2.5 trillion of goodwill on the balance sheets of corporations is alarming, especially the high values for tech companies like LinkedIn (LNKD) and Twitter (TWTR) , which rely on it to support their "lofty" valuations, said Morris.
The amount of goodwill may have larger impacts on well-known companies like United. Before its public relations snafu with an elderly passenger who was assaulted, the United was carrying $4.5 billion of goodwill as of Dec. 31, 2016, a number that has been unchanged in 2014 and 2015.
"The value of goodwill on the books must have taken a big haircut in the past several months," he said.