Business Is Slowing. So Companies Are Juicing Profits.

Google parent Alphabet is among a host of companies that have been beating analysts’ expectations.
Google parent Alphabet is among a host of companies that have been beating analysts’ expectations.


  • Business may be slowing, but measures of earnings management are rising

Business slowed last year for Google’s parent, Alphabet. The tech giant still beat earnings expectations in this year’s first quarter, in part because it said that its computer servers would last longer than expected.

The shift reduced its depreciation expense by nearly $1 billion and helped push per-share earnings ahead of analysts’ estimates.

Google isn’t alone in boosting its earnings in surprising ways. When business slows, companies often try to make their numbers look better. That appears to be happening now, from tech giants to used-car dealers.

A spokeswoman for Google declined to comment.

More companies are beating analysts’ expectations and by bigger amounts. Businesses’ nontraditional earnings metrics are beating reported earnings by a lot more than last year, and a measure of the likelihood of earnings manipulation is at its highest level in about 40 years.

Companies have long engaged in earnings management, by which executives use the flexibility in accounting rules to improve reported earnings per share.

The moves, many of which are allowed under accounting rules, nonetheless have detractors. In a letter to investors earlier this year, Warren Buffett called the practice “one of the shames of capitalism."

One way companies are trying to make their results look better is to provide numbers that don’t adhere to accounting standards—what are often referred to as pro forma measures—alongside the official data.

A report published Thursday by research firm Calcbench compared the net income based on accounting standards for 200 randomly selected companies in the S&P 500 with their adjusted net income, which can include or exclude items that would normally be counted. The adjusted numbers were higher by $1.1 billion on average last year, an increase of more than 130% over a similar sample from the year prior.

Another measure used to predict the likelihood of earnings flattery is the Beneish M-score, named for its creator, Indiana University accounting professor Messod Beneish. Recently, academics found the aggregate score of a sample of nearly 2,000 companies was at its highest level in more than 40 years, the most recent data shows. Historically, the aggregate score peaks ahead of a downturn.

First-quarter earnings exceeded expectations by an unusually large amount. Of the 485 companies on the S&P 500’s roster that had reported first-quarter earnings as of May 26, 77% surpassed analysts’ expectations, according to data provider Refinitiv. Since 1994, 66% of companies beat expectations in an average quarter.

The magnitude of the overperformance also stands out. Companies in aggregate are reporting earnings 6.9% above expectations, compared to a long-term average of 4.1%, according to Refinitiv. Some of that outperformance was the result of changes in the way the numbers were calculated.

The heightened use of the measures comes as regulators are scrutinizing nontraditional calculations and earnings manipulation. The Securities and Exchange Commission as recently as December warned companies that pro forma measures that replace traditional accounting methods with individually tailored disclosure could violate its rules.

The SEC has also said companies must reconcile how they get to the pro forma figures from the reported ones. In December, the regulator expanded the guidance with more details on what constitutes a possible violation.

Google came into 2023 on a cold streak, having missed analysts’ consensus for earnings in every quarter of last year as the slowing economy dragged on its core advertising business.

In April, the company broke the trend. Despite a continued slowdown in the company’s ad sales, Alphabet reported earnings per share of $1.17, beating analysts’ expectations of $1.08 a share. Google’s shares have risen some 18% since its earnings report.

The company’s filings noted two material changes in its accounting that helped boost the bottom line.

First, the company revised its estimates on the useful life of its server infrastructure, saying it would last up to six years instead of four. The change, the second such extension in two years, added 6 cents a share of earnings, according to the company. The change mirrored similar moves by competitors.

Separately, the company said it was shifting its stock-compensation awards for employees from January to March, resulting in the company recognizing less expense in the first quarter relative to the rest of the year.

The company’s filings didn’t disclose the precise impact of the move on first-quarter earnings but mentioned it several times as a material offset to expenses. In a filing, the company said the move was due to a previously announced change to employee evaluations.

Some accounting professors questioned the treatment. “It’s highly suspect," said Melissa Lewis-Western, an accounting professor at Brigham Young University. “Actual performance hasn’t changed, you’re just changing the allocation of the cost."

Online used-car seller Carvana was coming off a dismal year in 2022, in which its shares lost 97%.

Analysts expected the company to post a loss of $2.03 a share for this year’s first quarter. Ten days before the quarter ended, Carvana executives said they expected adjusted gross profit per car sold to come in between $4,100 and $4,400 for the quarter.

Carvana surprised Wall Street by losing only $1.51 a share, which sent the company’s shares soaring. Driving the beat was a better-than-forecast adjusted gross profit per car sold of nearly $4,800.

One reason Carvana’s earnings jumped was because it unwound $51 million in charges it made in the previous quarter. The company took the charges because it had expected to sell cars in its inventory for less than it had once expected but was then able to sell them for more as used car prices appreciated.

Unwinding the allowances boosted earnings by 48 cents a share, nearly all of the company’s beat of analysts’ expectations.

A spokesman for Carvana said the allowance’s potential impact was widely communicated to the market before the earnings release.

The company’s shares are up roughly 80% since it reported earnings.

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