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Lessons from Warren Buffett - XXIV

Dec 27, 2007

Last week, we read Warren Buffett's discourse on valuations and intrinsic value. In this concluding article on the master's 1992 letter to shareholders, let us see what he has to speak on employee compensation accounting and stock options. In the year 1992, two new accounting rules came into being out of which one mandated companies to create a liability on the balance sheet to account for present value of employees' post retirement health benefits. The master used the occasion to turn the tables on managers and chieftains who under the pretext of the old method avoided huge dents on their P&Ls and balance sheets. The earlier method required accounting for such benefits only when they are cashed but did not take into account the future liabilities that would arise thus overstating the net worth as well as profits by way of inadequate provisioning. This is what the master had to say on the issue.

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"Managers thinking about accounting issues should never forget one of Abraham Lincoln's favorite riddles: "How many legs does a dog have if you call his tail a leg?" The answer: "Four, because calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg." It behooves managers to remember that Abe's right even if an auditor is willing to certify that the tail is a leg."

By quoting the above statements, Warren Buffett has taken potshots at every accounting convention that understates liabilities and overstates profits and asks investors to guard against such measures. Next he criticizes accounting standard for ESOPs prevailing in the US at that time and this is what he has to say on the topic.

"Typically, executives have argued that options are hard to value and that therefore their costs should be ignored. At other times, managers have said that assigning a cost to options would injure small start-up businesses. Sometimes they have even solemnly declared that "out-of-the-money" options (those with an exercise price equal to or above the current market price) have no value when they are issued.

Oddly, the Council of Institutional Investors has chimed in with a variation on that theme, opining that options should not be viewed as a cost because they "aren't dollars out of a company's coffers." I see this line of reasoning as offering exciting possibilities to American corporations for instantly improving their reported profits. For example, they could eliminate the cost of insurance by paying for it with options. So if you're a CEO and subscribe to this "no cash-no cost" theory of accounting, I'll make you an offer you can't refuse: Give us a call at Berkshire and we will happily sell you insurance in exchange for a bundle of long-term options on your company's stock."

The master has hit the nail on the head when he has further gone on to mention that something of value that is delivered to another party always has costs associated with it and these costs come out of the shareholders' pockets. Thus, things like ESOPs and post retirement health benefits should be appropriately accounted for and should not be hidden under the garb of fuzzy accounting standards and ingenious rationales.

Before we round off the 1992 letter, let us see how the master in a way that he only can so strongly puts up the case for ESOPs to be considered as costs.

"If options aren't a form of compensation, what are they? If compensation isn't an expense, what is it? And, if expenses shouldn't go into the calculation of earnings, where in the world should they go?"

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