deferred taxes (II): how they’re important

Yesterday I wrote about what deferred taxes are.  Today,

why it matters

1.  The two most important sources of money coming in the door (i.e., cash flow) for companies are net income and depreciation.  Deferred taxes–that is, tax expense that’s shown on the income statement but not actually paid to the tax authorities, are number three.

Most companies succeed in pushing back the tax bill for an extremely long time.  So although deferred taxes aren’t as rock-solid as net or depreciation as a source of cash flow, they can be pretty dependable.  This means that companies in a heavy investment mode (building new buildings, installing new machinery/computers…) have more money in their hands than the income statement shows.   Look at the cash flow statement–the statement of sources and uses of funds–to see what the effect of deferred taxes on cash flow may be.

Mature companies are gradually forced to pay the tax-break piper.  After all, we’re talking about taxes deferred, not forgiven.  So they have less money coming in than the income statement suggests.  Again, check the cash flow statement.

2.  Deferred taxes have a second, even less intuitively obvious, accounting use.  It’s crucial to understand, though, when dealing with “deep value” (read: really junky) companies.

Suppose the company has a pre-tax loss of $1,000,000 on its tax books.  It can typically “carry back” at least part of the loss, meaning it can retroactively apply it to prior years’ income and get a tax refund.  If it can’t, the after-tax loss is $1,000,000.  And the firm can “carry forward” the loss to use as an offset against taxable income in the future.  These loss carryforwards expire if they’re not used within a certain number of years, however. (Relevant information will be found in the tax footnote to the financials.)

Financial reporting treatment is different.  Normally the firm’s accountants will assume that the tax loss carryforwards will be used to offset future taxable income before they expire.  If so, and the firm has a pre-tax $1,000,000 loss on its shareholder books, the accountants will apply in the current statements deferred tax credit of, say, $350,000.  So the financial reporting loss will not be $1,000,000 but $650,000.

In this case, the financial reporting books understate the loss.

the crucial issue

That’s not the crucial issue, though.  The accounting firm that prepares the company’s books will only allow the deferred tax deduction as long as it believes the firm will be a “going concern”  (read: will avoid bankruptcy) and will generate enough future taxable income to use the loss carryforwards.  If it decides otherwise, it must require that the company reverse some or all of the previously recorded deferred taxes.

The worst about this is, of course, not the change in accounting treatment, but it signals the words dead and duck have begun to dance across the auditors’ minds.

Check out my post on Mike Mayo and Citigroup for a real-life example.

deferred taxes (I): what they are

Last week I wrote about how publicly traded companies typically maintain three sets of books:  tax books, management control books and financial reporting books.

The two sets we’ll be concerned about today are the financial reporting books and the tax books, the ones that outsiders get to see.

Hang onto your hat and let’s get started!

why deferred taxes?

It’s reasonable to ask whether these two accounting pictures of a company’s financial health exist in parallel universes–one to poor mouth the company in order to minimize taxes, the other to flatter results so that shareholders will be happier than maybe they should be     …or is there something that ties the two sets together?

they connect tax and shareholder records

There are, in fact, two ways in which these sets of books are connected.

First, the IRS doesn’t let a company pick radically different accounting methods for tax books from the ones it uses for shareholder reports.  Inventories–meaning all that FIFO or LIFO stuff–are an example.

In addition, there are deferred taxes.

what they are

The income tax line is the one place that financial accounting standards compel a company to reveal something about the books it keeps for tax authorities.

When the financial accountants work down the income statement, they start with the sales line.  They subtract various costs, like materials, marketing, interest payments…   from revenues as they work their way to net profit.  When they’ve figured out  pre-tax income, they apply the appropriate income tax rate and subtract to get to net income.  They do this country by country, local and national.  

Then they reconcile with the tax books

They do this by dividing the tax figure they’ve arrived at into two components:

–the tax actually paid to the IRS or its equivalent, called cash taxes; and

–the rest, called deferred taxes.  

The deferred tax figure can be positive, meaning the company is sending smaller check(s) to the tax authorities than the total amount of tax shown on the financial reporting books; or it can be negative, meaning the company is paying out more than the total tax charge shown on the shareholder records.

Sounds weird, doesn’t it?  That’s because it is.

But try to get used to the idea.  It can be important.

how deferred taxes come to be

Lots of ways.  But it’s all about timing differences.

for example

The simplest is this:  a company builds a factory that costs $1,000,000, has a useful life of 40 years and has no value after that.  On the shareholder books, the company allocates the factory expense evenly over the 40 years, at the rate of $25,000 a year.  Accountants call this the straight line depreciation method.

On the other hand, the national government may want to encourage companies to build factories of this type.  So it gives them tax breaks by, say, allowing firms to front-load the tax writeoffs.  Maybe it allows a firm to write off $250,000 of the total cost in the first year (lowering otherwise taxable income by that much), $100,000 in the second, and the rest in progressively smaller amounts over the following seven years.  This is an accelerated depreciation method.

Let’s assume this is the only difference between the company’s tax books and its shareholder books.  If so, in year one the tax books will show $225,000 less in pre-tax income than the shareholder books ($250,000 – $25,000), due to the faster timing of the factory writeoff on the former.  Depending on the rate of corporate income tax, the company will pay something like $80,000 less in cash taxes than the financial books show as due.  This amount will be recorded as deferred tax.

where you can see this stuff

Usually not on the income statement.

Two places:  in the tax footnote to the income statement, and in the cash flow statement   …not usually, however, on the income statement itself.

Tomorrow:  why this geeky stuff can be important


Wal-Mart (WMT): early February sales “a total disaster’

Wal-Mart executives’ emails

Last Friday Bloomberg published  a summary of internal emails from WMT.  In one of these the company’s VP of finance and logistics, Jerry Murray, reportedly wrote that this February has seen the worst start to a month he’d seen in his seven years with the giant retailer.  He characterized the results so far as “a total disaster.”

The remarks are noteworthy if only because WMT is the largest store chain in the US, accounting for about $1 in every $10 spent at retail.  But they’re especially eyebrow-raising because Mr. Murray’s tenure covers the entire Great Recession of 2008-09, none of whose depths apparently held a candle to this February.

What’s going on?

I don’t know.  But this story is worth keeping an eye on.  It’s also probably worth monitoring MWT’s earnings results presentation on Feb 21st.

WMT’s take

WMT singles out two causes:

1.  the tax on payroll income that’s intended to fund Social Security (we wish) was raised back from 4% to 6% on January 1st

2.  the fiscal cliff debate that occupies Washington for most of December mucked up the IRS schedule for sending out forms and processing tax returns.  WMT estimates the IRS would have distributed almost $20 billion in refund checks during January to early filers–instead of the zero that actually occurred.


It’s possible, of course, that Mr. Murray is highly emotional and sends out hysterical emails to colleagues as a matter of course.  Let’s assume that’s not the case.  If so, as investors we’ve got to consider that:

1.  Ex the extremely wealthy, consumers adjust their spending depending on the overall economic situation.  As we saw in 2008-2010, during bad times families:

—–defer buying big-ticket items, like cars, refrigerators…

—–buy cheaper generic rather than brands, and

—–trade down from, say, grocery/department stores to discounters, from discounters to dollar stores, or from dollar stores to places completely off the publicly-traded-stock map–all depending on where the individual’s starting point is.

WMT was a relative loser in this process.

Now the reverse is happening.  WMT is getting back customers from the dollar stores–and losing them to more up-market venues.  Symmetry argues that WMT should be a winner from this trend.  Apparently not, however.

2.  About a third of WMT’s customer base is families with annual income that’s just a bit over half the national average.  For these families, the rise in the payroll tax means a hit to disposable income of about $50 a month.  Doesn’t sound like much.  But for people already living from paycheck to paycheck, this may mean significant belt-tightening, even though the nationwide employment situation is gradually improving.

In other words, WMT’s terrible, horrible, no good very bad month may be indicative of the lower middle class market segment it dominates, rather than of the US economy as a whole.

what I think

No conclusions yet, only that the situation bears watching.

The sales falloff may be WMT-specific, the result of some merchandising mistake the company made.  It could also be indicative of the continuing struggles of lower-income Americans.  We also can’t dismiss out of hand the possibility that the overall retail business in the US is beginning to wobble as WMT apparently is–although I’d be very surprised if this is so.

As an aside, we might also ask how Bloomberg ended up with the emails–though my guess is that this isn’t that important for us as investors.

We’ll know more when WMT reports.



one company, three sets of accounting records

In almost all countries publicly traded companies maintain three sets of accounting records.  They are:

–tax books in which the firm keeps track of the taxable income it generates, and the taxes due on that income, according to the rules of the appropriate tax authority.

Keeping the tax records may also involve a tax planning element.  A company may, for example, decide to recognize profits, to the extent it can, in a low-tax jurisdiction.  Or, as is often the case with US companies, it may decide not to repatriate profits earned abroad, at least partially because they would thereby become subject to a 35% tax.

Tax considerations can also have operational consequences.  For instance, a firm may choose to locate factories or sales offices in low tax jurisdictions over similar high tax alternatives mostly for tax reasons.

–financial reporting books, in which publicly traded firms keep track of profits, and report them to shareholders, according to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).

If the purpose of tax accounting is to yield the smallest amount of taxable income, and thereby the smallest amount of tax, the intent of financial reporting books can be seen as trying to present the same facts in the rosiest possible manner to shareholders.

The main difference between the two accounting systems comes in how long-lived assets are charged as costs against revenue.  Financial accounting rules allow such costs to be spread out evenly over long periods of time.  Tax accounting rules, which may be specifically designed to encourage investment, typically allow the firm to front-load a large chunk of the spending into one or two years.

The end result is that for most publicly traded companies, the net income reported to shareholders is far higher than that reported to the tax authorities.

management control books, kept according to cost accounting rules.  These are the records that a company’s top executives use to organize and direct the firm’s operations.  They set out company objectives and incentives, and are used to assess how each of its units are performing against corporate goals.  Not all parts of a firm are supposed to make profits.  Some may have the job of making, at the lowest possible cost, high quality components used elsewhere in the company.  A mature division may not have the job of growing itself anymore,  but of generating the largest possible amount of cash.

investment implications

Investors normally don’t get to see either a company’s tax books or its management control books.

Financial reporting books can sometimes give a picture that’s too rosy.  The two main culprits are deferred taxes and capitalized interest.  “Capitalized” interest is usually the interest on construction loans taken out for a project than’s underway but not yet finished.  Even though money is going out the door, under GAAP it’s not shown as a current expense.   I’ll explain deferred taxes next week.

In a very practical sense, you don’t need to understand either one too much (although it might be nice to).  Turn to the company’s cash flow statement in its latest SEC earnings filing.  Are there deferred tax or capitalized interest entries?  Do they add to cash flow or subtract from it?   …by how much?  If the answer is no, or that they add to cash flow, there’s nothing to worry about.  If they subtract–and a lot, on the other hand, there’s a potential problem.