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会计大师推出新盈利能力指标:COROA

Shawn Tully 2014年03月14日

忘了ROE(净资产收益率)或者EBITDA(息税折旧摊销)前利润吧,顶级会计大师为大家带来了一个更准确的衡量指标——COROA,即“资产的现金经营回报率”。

    管理层提供的业绩指标让人感觉良好,而且会让人觉得“如果不考虑那些不利因素就美不胜收”——对投资者来说,一个重大挑战就是透过这些指标来衡量一家公司真正的盈利能力。就连按照美国通用会计准则(GAAP)计算出来的正式数据也经常需要充分琢磨才能看清真实情况。举例来说,许多公司都会把自己的净利润/股东权益比例做得很高,以此宣称自己的经营很成功。投资者要注意的是,管理层可以通过增加负债来提高ROE(净资产收益率),而高杠杆会给一家公司带来更多风险,而不是让它变得更好。目前流行的另一种方法是将产品利润最高的工厂转移到低税收国家/地区,但这些地方的税收可能不会长期维持低水平。避税能为盈利带来一、两次提升,但它不能证明管理层在基本经营方面有任何改进。

    那么,拆穿上面这些伎俩、衡量公司到底有多赚钱的最佳途径是什么呢?要回答这个问题,就要谈到沃伦•巴菲特的投资观点:找到资本回报率一直很高的公司——不光是它们目前所管理资本的回报率,还包括每年新产生的利润。复合增长率达到两位数的新投资就预示着股东能获得上佳的回报。

    专业期刊《分析师会计观察》(The Analyst's Accounting Observer)因为巧妙地阐述会计问题而得到资产管理公司经理人的赞誉。这份刊物的出版人杰克•切谢尔斯基为公司盈利能力制定了一个全新指标。他的目标是让人们清楚地看到经营者在运用股东托付的资金进行投资时所取得的成功。切谢尔斯基把这个指标称为“COROA”,意思是资产的现金经营回报率(cash operating return on assets)。他的想法是衡量管理层向工厂、研发中心、库存以及其他所有资产投入的全部资金产生纯现金回报的能力,而不是对今后所得现金的预期。2月份,切谢尔斯基在第25期《分析师会计观察》中写道:“投资者用公司产生现金的能力和投入到该公司的资金进行比较是合理行为。”对他来说,现金就是一切。他问道:“世界上还有什么比现金更重要?嗯?当然有,那就是更多的现金。”

    第一步是弄清楚真正的经营现金流,也就是在整个财年中获得的全部资金。它不是现金流量表的“经营活动产生的现金流量”那一栏里所填的那个数字。切谢尔斯基认为,两个因素造成了这个数字的失真,从而使它不能可靠地衡量真实表现。首先,公司公布的现金流量扣除了所得税,因此税负减少会造成经营情况不断改善的假象。其次,公司公布的数据也不包括利息,而每年支付的利息体现了公司的杠杆水平,但这和管理层在资产经营方面的表现毫无关系。

    因此,切谢尔斯基主张把以现金形式出现的税负和利息加回去,进而计算出纯粹的经营现金流量。如上文所述,这个数字是一家公司在一年时间里的实际收入,管理层可以用它来分红,回购股票,通过收购其他公司或某些业务来进行“投资”,以及用于资本支出,特别是那些推动增长的资本支出。这是COROA的分子。

    COROA的分母是产生上述经营现金流的资产所消耗的全部资金。要计算这个数字,就要用资产负债表中的“总资产”加上“累计折旧”,这是为了满足记账需要,将仍在生产轿车或半导体的工厂或实验室完全记为费用。幸运的是,美国上市公司每年都必须在年报中公布以现金形式出现的税负和利息以及累计折旧,而且现在它们正在提交大量新信息。大公司提交年报的最后期限是3月4日。这样投资者就能采用极为新鲜的数据进行分析。

    A big challenge for investors is piercing management's feel-good, "it's all great if you leave out the bad stuff" earnings metrics to measure a company's true profitability. Even the official GAAP accounting numbers frequently need plenty of scrubbing to reveal the real picture. For example, many companies claim victory by boasting that their ratio of net profits to shareholders' equity is a big number. Investor beware: Management can hike "return on equity" by piling on debt, and high leverage makes the player riskier, not better. Another tactic, now in vogue, is moving factories that make the most profitable products to low-tax nations where the taxes may not remain low for long. That tax arbitrage provides a one- or two-time boost in earnings, but doesn't prove management is running the basic businesses any better.

    So what's the best, gimmick-proof way to measure how profitable companies really are? Answering that question gets to Warren Buffett's view of investing: Finding companies that consistently generate big returns on capital -- not only on the capital they manage now, but the fresh earnings that flow in each year. New investments that compound at double-digit rates are the ticket to fabulous performance for shareholders.

    Jack Ciesielski, author of The Analyst's Accounting Observer, a newsletter prized by asset managers that skillfully demystifies accounting issues, has developed a fresh measure of profitability. His goal is to provide a clear view of managers' success in investing the capital entrusted to them by shareholders. He calls it "COROA," for cash operating return on assets. The idea is to measure management's ability to generate pure cash returns, not cash expected in the future, on every dollar invested in plants, R&D centers, inventories, and all other assets. "It makes sense for an investor to look at a firm's cash generation ability, relative to the cash invested it," Ciesielski wrote in the Feb. 25 edition of his newsletter, "The Analyst's Accounting Observer." For Ciesielski, it's all about cash. "What's more important in the world than cash?" he asks. "Why, it's more cash, of course."

    The first step is ascertaining true operating cash flows, meaning every dollar collected during the fiscal year. That's not the number on the cash flow statement titled "cash flow from operating activities." For Ciesielski, two factors distort that figure, making it an unreliable measure of true performance. First, official cash flow is calculated after cash income taxes, so that falling taxes can create the illusion of ongoing progress. Second, interest is also subtracted, and the size of the annual interest levy reflects the level of leverage, but has nothing to do with how well management is managing their assets.

    Hence, Ciesielski advocates adding back cash taxes and cash interest to calculate pure operating cash flows. Once again, that's the dollar amount that the company actually puts in its coffers during the year. Those are the dollars that management has available to pay dividends, buy back stock, make "investments" by purchasing companies or divisions, and funding capital expenditures, especially those that propel growth. That's the numerator.

    The denominator consists of every dollar spent on the assets that produce those operating cash flows. To calculate that figure, take "total assets" from the balance sheet, and add "accumulated depreciation" to account for the plants or fabs still making cars or semiconductors that, for accounting purposes, are fully expensed. Fortunately, cash taxes, cash interest, and accumulated depreciation must be reported each year in the 10K, and loads of new information is just now being filed. For large companies, the deadline for 10K filings was March 4. So that investors can perform extremely up-to-date analysis.

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