GAAP vs. Non-GAAP: An Overview

Thorough investment research requires assessment of both GAAP and adjusted results, but investors should carefully consider the validity of non-GAAP exclusions on a case-by-case basis to avoid misleading and excessively bullish figures, especially as reporting standards diverge.

GAAP

GAAP was developed by the Financial Accounting and Standards Board (FASB) to standardize financial reporting and provide a uniform set of rules and formats to facilitate analysis by investors and creditors. The GAAP created guidelines for item recognition, measurement, presentation, and disclosure. Bringing uniformity and objectivity to accounting improves the credibility and stability of corporate financial reporting, factors that are deemed necessary for optimally functioning capital markets. Companies can be compared against one another, results can be verified by reputable auditors, and investors can be assured that the reports are reflective of fundamental well-being. These principles were established and adapted largely to protect investors from misleading or dubious reporting.

Non-GAAP

There are instances in which GAAP reporting fails to accurately portray the operations of a business. Companies are allowed to display their own accounting figures, as long as they are disclosed as non-GAAP and provide a reconciliation between the adjusted and regular results. Non-GAAP figures usually exclude irregular or noncash expenses, such as those related to acquisitions, restructuring or one-time balance sheet adjustments. This smooths out high earnings volatility that can result from temporary conditions, providing a clearer picture of the ongoing business. Forward-looking statements are important because valuations are largely based on anticipated cash flows. However, non-GAAP figures are developed by the reporting company, so they may be subject to situations in which the incentives of shareholders and corporate management are not aligned.

Key Differences

Investors should observe and interpret non-GAAP figures, but they must also recognize instances in which GAAP figures are more appropriate. Successful identification of misleading or incomplete non-GAAP results becomes more important as those numbers diverge from GAAP.

Studies have shown that adjusted figures are more likely to back out losses than gains, suggesting that management teams are willing to abandon consistency to foster investor optimism.

The discrepancy between GAAP net income and non-GAAP profits among Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) firms grew from 11.8 percent in 2014 to 30.7 percent in 2015. Much of this can be attributed to turmoil in commodity and currency markets, which heavily distorted GAAP earnings in several industries. Concerns over reporting practices reached beyond the impacts of slumping energy prices as Equifax Inc. (NYSE: EFX) and T-Mobile US Inc. (NASDAQ: TMUS) both received warning letters in 2015 from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), regarding improper reporting.

Special Considerations

GAAP and non-GAAP results are both important in many cases, and studies by academic and professional sources support this stance. Investors forced to choose a side as the two diverge should consider the specific exclusions in adjusted figures, and personal economic outlook is also important. Companies that consistently purchase smaller firms and intend to sustain this acquisitive strategy often exclude certain acquisition-related costs that remain a material ongoing expense to the business, but should not be overlooked.

Studies have suggested that the exclusion of stock-based compensation from earnings results materially reduces the predictive power of analyst forecasts, so non-GAAP figures that merely adjust for equity compensation are less likely to provide actionable data. However, non-GAAP results from responsible firms grant investors unparalleled insight into the methodology employed by management teams as they analyze their own companies and plan future operations.

Key Takeaways

  • GAAP standardizes financial reporting and provides a uniform set of rules and formats to facilitate analysis by investors and creditors.
  • There are instances in which GAAP reporting fails to accurately portray the operations of a business.
  • Investors should observe and interpret non-GAAP figures, but they must also recognize instances in which GAAP figures are more appropriate.