deferred taxes and corporate tax reform

I wrote a couple of posts several years ago explaining in some detail what deferred taxes are.  The short version: when a company makes a gigantic loss, the loss itself has an economic value.  That’s because the firm can almost always use it to shield future earnings from income tax.


The IRS and the Financial Accounting Standards Board have different ways of accounting for deferred taxes.  For the IRS, they only appear on a return when the company has sufficient otherwise taxable income to use them.  At the other extreme, financial accounting rules allow the company to recognize the entire value of these potential savings immediately.  That’s even though the actual use of tax losses may be far in the future.

An example:

A company has pre-tax income of $1,000,000 from ordinary operations.  It also closes down a subsidiary, incurring a pre-tax loss of $11,000,000.  For IRS purposes, the firm has a total pre-tax loss of $10,000,000.  Ignoring the possibility of carrybacks (recovery of previous years’ tax payments because of the current loss), the company has no taxable income.  It also has a loss in the current year of $10,000,000, which it can potentially use to shield future income from taxes.

Financial accounting presents a much rosier picture.  The pre-tax loss of $10,000,000 is the same.  But financial accounting allows the company to recognize the possibility of future tax recovery right away, as a reduction of the current loss.

The financial accounting income statement reads like this:

pre-tax loss        ($10,000,000)

deferred taxes    +$3,500,000

net loss                 ($6,500,000).

The $3.5 million is carried as a deferred tax asset on the balance sheet until used.

Auditors are supposed to certify that it’s actually possible for the company to generate enough future income to use up the tax losses during the limited period of years tax law allows.  I can’t think of a company where auditors have held a firm’s feet to the fire on this point, though.

Where does the  tax bill come in?  The tax rate assumed in writeoffs up until now is 35%.  However, from now on, the top tax rate in the US is going to be 21%.  Therefore, deferred tax assets now being held on corporate balance sheets are only worth 21/35ths (about 57%) of their current carrying value.  Because they’re clearly, and significantly,  overvalued, they must be written down.

This may well throw algorithmic value investors for a loop, since the writeoff of deferred taxes will be reductions to book value.

What sector does this change affect the most?

Major banks.

Banks took major writeoffs in 2008-09 because of speculative trading and lending losses piled up after the Glass Steagall Act was repealed in the late 1990s. These losses were gigantic enough to require a huge government bailout of the industry in 2009.

Note:  Glass-Steagall was passed in the 1930s to prevent a recurrence of the financial meltdown that triggered the Great Depression.  Banks claimed in the 1990s that they were too mature to do anything like this again.  In this instance, it took over a half-century for Washington to forget why the law was in place.  However–and oddly–Washington already appears eager to to dismantle Dodd-Frank.



US corporate tax reform (ii)

There are likely to be losers from corporate income tax reform.  They’re likely to be of two types:

–companies that currently have sweetheart tax deals, which, as things stand now (meaning:  subject to the success of intensive lobbying), will go away as part of reform.  A related group is multinationals who’ve twisted their corporate structures into pretzels to locate taxable income outside the US

–companies making losses currently and/or that have unused tax-loss carryforwards.  The value of those unused losses will likely be reduced by a lot.  This is a somewhat more complicated issue than it seems.  In their reports to public shareholders, money-losing firms can use anticipated future tax benefits to reduce the size of current losses.  The ins-and-outs of this are only important in isolated cases, so I’ll just say that for such firms book value is likely overstated

Another potential consequence of tax reform is that investors may begin to take a harder look at tax-related items on the income and cash flow statements.  Could markets will begin to apply a discount to the stocks of firms that use gimmicks to depress their tax rate?  Thinking some what more broadly, it may mean the markets will take a dimmer view of other sorts of financial engineering (share buybacks are what I personally hope for).  It might also be that companies themselves will reemphasize operation experience rather than financial sleight of hand when choosing their CEOs.

US corporate tax reform (iii)

For years ago I wrote in detail about today’s topic, which is deferred taxes.

The basics:

–deferred taxes are an accounting device that reconciles the cheery face a company typically present to shareholders with the more down-at-the-heels look it gives the IRS, while accurately reporting to both parties the cash taxes paid

–look at the cash flow statement, which, as the name implies, shows the cash moving in and out of the company or in the income tax footnote to get the particulars for a firm you may be interested in.

accounting for a loss

The issue I’m concerned about in this post is what happens when a company makes a loss.

reporting to the IRS

The income statement  for the IRS looks like this:

pre-tax income (loss)      ($100)

income tax due                          0

after-tax income (loss)     ($100).

reporting to shareholders

Financial accounting books, in contrast, look like this:

pre-tax income (loss)         ($100)

deferred tax, at 35%                 $35

after-tax income (loss)        ($65).

what’s going on

The financial accounting idea, other than to cosmetically soften the blow of a loss, is that at some future date the company in question will again be making money.  If so, it will be able to use the loss being incurred now to offset otherwise taxable future income.  Financial accounting rules allow the company to take the future benefit today.

It’s important to note, however, that the deferred tax is an estimate of future tax relief, based on today’s tax rates.

why does this matter?

Profits add to shareholders’ equity; losses subtract from it.  Under the GAAP accounting used for reports to stockholders, a loss-making company only has to write down its shareholders’ equity (aka net worth, book value) by about two-thirds of the actual loss.  To the casual observer, and to the value investor using computer screening, it looks stronger than it probably should.

Financial stocks typically trade on price/book.  This is also the sector that took devastatingly large losses during the financial crisis (that they caused, I might add).

Suppose the corporate tax rate is reduced to 15%.

This diminishes the value of any tax loss carryforwards a firm may have.  It also may require a substantial writedown of book value, making that figure more accurate.  But the writedown may also underline that the stock isn’t as cheap as it appears.


US corporate tax reform: stock market implications (i)

high US corporate taxes

The headline rate for US federal tax on corporate profits is 35%.  That’s higher than just about anyplace else on the planet and, in itself, a deterrent to business formation in the United States.  It’s also the reason for the big business of advising corporations on how to finesse the tax code that has sprung up over the past decade or so.  In addition, it’s also why tax havens such as Ireland, Switzerland, Hong Kong and assorted islands in the Atlantic Ocean have become so popular with Americans.

A generation ago, world stock markets paid particular attention the rate at which a given company paid corporate tax.  The assumption back then, which has turned out to be incorrect, was that a firm could only sustain a low tax rate for a limited period of time.  So no matter what the rate shown in the financial statements, professional securities analysts would “normalize” it  to the top marginal rate.  Portfolio managers wouldn’t pay a full price for a low tax payer, either.

Not so in today’s world.  As far as I can see, Wall Street has long since stopped believing that the “quality” of earnings taxed at below the statutory tax rate is less than those same earnings taxed at a higher one.

Trump’s proposed reform

Given that the Republican party controls both houses of Congress and the presidency, it seems to me that the corporate tax reform championed by Donald Trump has a good chance for becoming law.  This would mean that for a company having $100 in fully-taxed pretax US income, after-tax profit would rise from $65 to $85–a 30+% boost.

big stock market implications

A change like this would have enormous implications for US-traded stocks.  In particular:

–investor interest would rotate toward purely domestic companies.  This would favor mid- and small-caps over large, and dollar earners over multinationals.  I think this is already starting to happen

–to the degree that they could be, elaborate tax avoidance schemes that have become common for US firms will be unwound.  Tax havens will suffer.  On the other hand, profits from future earnings that would otherwise be held in tax-haven banks will begin to be repatriated to the US.  Trump is also proposing to allow money now “trapped” in tax havens to be brought back to the US on payment of a 10% income tax.

–tax inversions by US-based companies–that is, flight of high-rate US taxpayers to tax havens abroad (or, actually, just about anywhere else) will come to a halt.  Arguably, companies that have recently inverted may begin to trade at discounts to un-inverted peers

–the price US firms would be willing to pay for foreign companies using funds parked abroad should fall

–it’s possible that US investors will begin to become interested once again in the ins and outs of the tax line on the income statement.  That might mean that 1980-style quality-of-earnings differentials will be in vogue again

–there are also possible negative implications for firms that have substantial tax loss carryforwards or who benefit from the many industry-specific tax preferences of the current tax code.


More tomorrow.

what the big Sony writeoff means

Sony’s fiscal 2010 results

Sony reported its fiscal year 2010 earnings (the company’s fiscal year ends, as is customary with Japanese companies, on March 31st) in Japan overnight.  Tokyo Stock Exchange requires that all listed firms both make an official estimate of anticipated results.  The TSE also requires companies to publish a revision–prior to releasing the actuals–as/when it realizes the actual results will differ from the official estimate by more than 30%.  In line with this requirement, Sony announced a downward revision to earnings last Monday.

the writeoff

The issue is deferred taxes in Japan.  Sony wrote off US$4.3 billion.

The company points out that:

–the writeoff is a non-cash charge,meaning no money has been lost,

–this doesn’t preclude use of  tax-loss carryforwards in the future, and

–the charge “does not reflect a change in Sony’s view of its long-term corporate strategy.”

what this means

Unlike most Japanese firms, Sony keeps its official financial reporting books according to US Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.  GAAP uses deferred taxes.

Let’s say a company loses money this year–thereby establishing a tax-loss carryforward that can be used to offset taxes on future income.  GAAP tells the company that it should record a credit for this possible future tax benefit in this year’s financials.  In other words, if you have a loss of $100 this year, but anticipate that you will have enough profit, say, five years from now to employ this loss to offset $30 in income tax that would otherwise be payable, you should take the $30 gain in the current year.  You record a loss of $100 on your income statement plus a deferred tax benefit of $30.  The net loss you report to shareholders is $70, not the full $100 amount.

One proviso, though.  You have to have a reasonable basis for thinking that you’ll have enough future profit to use the potential tax benefit that today’s loss represents.  And your auditor has to agree with you.

Sony has been in loss in Japan for three years now.  The writeoff means that Sony’s accountants no longer think the company will be able to generate enough taxable income to use $4.3 billion of future tax credits it had previously expected to enjoy.

my thoughts

Sony cites the March earthquake/tsunamis as a reason for this re-evaluation.  But at the same time it notes that the damage to its businesses in Japan haven’t been that great, are mostly covered by insurance, and that it’s confident it will collect on its policies.

The benign reading of the big writeoff would be that Sony’s overall internal profit projections haven’t changed much and the important thing to note is the “in Japan” part of the company statement.  It could be the writeoff means that Sony is going to make a major shift of production away from Japan.  It will continue to make the same profits, just not in its home country.

In my experience, though, events rarely follow the benign path.  I don’t know today’s Sony well enough to judge in this case, but typically a firm’s accountants notice business deterioration and propose a writeoff–and management reluctantly (sometimes, very reluctantly) falls in line.  It may be that the operative word in Sony’s statement of confidence in its prospects is “long term.”

SNE as a stock

I don’t know the company well enough to have an opinion.  I know what I’d look for, though.

Sony has two main businesses:  consumer electronics and video games.  The company has lost ground in the first to Samsung and Apple.  In the current generation of game consoles, Sony has regained past form after turning first-mover advantage over to X-Box, allowing MSFT to gain a market share I don’t think it could otherwise have achieved.  But rival Nintendo is already talking about a new game console.  And the game business is morphing into one favoring simple games played on a cellphone or through a social network.  What are Sony’s plans?

Ideally, one would like to see both main businesses in sync and operating profitably–not strength in one being offset by weakness in the other.


I want to talk about subscription services and about cloud computing in particular.  This and the next couple of posts will lay some groundwork.


As as investor, I’m interested in depreciation in the accounting sense–the expense on the income statement that represents the allocation of part of the cost of a capital asset (that is, an asset that lasts a long time, like a factory or a piece of machinery) against revenues in a given period of time.  (In an economic sense, which I’m not going to write about here, depreciation is the wearing out or obsolescence of a capital asset.  The two senses of depreciation aren’t the same thing.  In the accounting sense, for example, the laws in a given country or accounting convention determine what can be written off, and by how much.  A factory building, for instance, amy be allowed to be written off over 40 years.  At the end of that time, the carrying value on the balance sheet will be zero, or very close.  But the structure itself may be economically usable for another 20 years.  A further aside–this difference can be very pronounced when dealing with the depletion of mineral reserves.)

a non-cash charge

Depreciation doesn’t represent an outlay of cash during the period it is charged against income.  The factory is already built and the machinery is already installed before anything is made for sale.  It actually represents an inflow of cash which the company is not considering to be profit, but rather recovery of a portion of the capital investment it has made in plant and equipment.

figuring what the quarterly depreciation expense is

To determine the depreciation expense in a given accounting period, a company needs several pieces of information.  They are:

–the cost of the capital item

–its estimated useful life

–estimated salvage value, and

–the method to be used in allocating the depreciable cost (cost – salvage value) over the useful life.

Two allied concepts to depreciation are amortization and depletion. Depletion is the cost allocation procedure for the value of mineral reserves;  amortization is the procedure for intangible assets.

depreciation methods

straight line

The most commonly used method of depreciation in financial reporting is straight line. This means that the depreciable cost is spread in equal amounts over the estimated useful life.  Let’s assume, for example, that an asset has a cost of 1,000, a useful life of 10 years and a salvage value of zero.  The the depreciable value is 1000 – 0 = 1000.  1000/10 years = 100/year.  This means depreciation expense of 25 per quarter or 100 per year.


Sometimes companies feel that assets, like computer systems, lose value faster than the straight-line method allows for.  So they will voluntarily use a depreciation method that writes off a larger amount of the asset’s cost in the earlier years of its life.  More often, governments will give companies a tax break by allowing them to use an accelerated depreciation method for writing off a given type of investment on the company’s tax return.

two accelerated techniques

There are two main methods of accelerating depreciation.  They may not make a lot of intuitive sense, but since they’re mostly intended as tax breaks, that shouldn’t matter too much.

1)  declining balance

Declining balance is the name for a family of depreciation schemes that key off the straight line depreciation method.  Specific declining balance schemes are designated as, say, 2x declining balance, 1.75x declining balance, etc.  The number in front refers to the multiple of straight line depreciation that’s applied each year to the depreciable balance for the asset.  “Declining balance” refers to the fact that the the gross depreciable amount declines.  It is reduced each year by the value of the prior year’s depreciation, before the new depreciation is calculated.

For example, let’s say we’re going to use double (2x) declining balance to depreciate the above ten-year life asset with original cost of 1000 and no salvage value.  For a ten-year life asset, straight line depreciation is 10% of the value each year.  Using 2x declining balance means using two times the straight line percentage, or 20%, as the percent of the asset value that we’ll depreciate in each year.

In year one, this means our depreciation is 20% of 1000, or 200.  For year two, we first subtract last year’s depreciation from asset value; that is, 1000 – 200 = 800.  Second year depreciation is 20% of 800, or 160.  In year three, the depreciable balance is 800 – 160 = 640.  Depreciation is 20% of 640, or 128.  And so on.

One quirk–the declining balance method can never get the asset fully depreciated, because you’re always taking only a fraction of the depreciable balance each year.   So accountants made up a fudge to get the system to work.  At some point, declining balance gets you a smaller depreciation expense than using straight line would.    In our case it’s at year six (where 2x declining balance = 20% of the depreciable balance; straight line = 25%).  At that point, you switch to using straight line for the remaining years.

3) sum of the years digits

This method, which doesn’t have any rationale that I can see, is nevertheless pretty straightforward.  Take the estimated useful life in years.  Add together all the digits from one through that number.  That gets you the denominator of a fraction.  Assign the highest digit of the series to the first year of depreciation, the next highest to year two, etc.  That get’s you the numerator.  For each year, multiplying  (the gross depreciable amount) x (the digit assigned) /(sum of the digits) = that year’s depreciation.

For example, in our ten-year lived asset, the sum of the digits 1-10 is 55.  Therefore, first year depreciation is 1000 x 10 /55 =   181.82.  Second year depreciation is 1000 x 9 /55 =  163.64.  And so on.

Two points:

–depreciation is a key element in the calculation of cash low, which is the topic of the next post in this series, and

–the difference in between the taxes on profits as shown in a given financial report to shareholders and the (often much lower) amount actually paid to the tax authority gives rise to deferred taxes, which can be a key element of cash flow as well.

More about these topics in the post on cash flow.

Mike Mayo vs. Citigroup on deferred taxes: round III

Mike Mayo’s writing about C’s deferred tax assets again.  They now amount to over $50 billion and Mr. Mayo thinks at least part should be written off and removed from C’s balance sheet.

Mr. Mayo, a respected Wall Street bank analyst now working at CLSA, has always spoken his mind, even when he knows it will arouse the ire of the major commercial banks he covers.  Banks–like any large-cap publicly listed companies–know how to play hardball.  They can, and have, cut off his access to top management, and they can deny his employer their securities underwriting, and other investment banking, business.  But that has never stopped Mr. Mayo–who (perhaps out of necessity) has worked for a variety of Wall Street firms over his career.

Last year, Mr. Mayo predicted that C would write off $10 billion in deferred tax assets from its balance sheet at yearend.  The company didn’t, explaining in its 10-K that if all else failed it would repatriate massive foreign accumulated profits to enable it to use the tax losses has accumulated on its balance sheet.

So, Mr. Mayo’s writing again.  Why?  –because C’s deferred tax account has continued to grow, reaching $50 billion at the end of the June quarter–or a third of the bank’s tangible equity.  The number is also very big relative to C’s market capitalization of $110 billion.  If they could all be used today, they would probably represent C’s single most important asset.

That’s the question, though.  They can’t all be used today.  In fact, C is generating more of them.  But can they all ever be used before they expire?  Mr. Mayo thinks not.  C says they will be.

My guess is that Mr. Mayo is technically correct, but that we won’t see a writedown for several years, if we ever do.  Two reasons:

–I don’t think the authorities see any percentage in portraying a major commercial bank as being in worse financial shape than its audited financials show it to be now.  At least a portion of the deferred tax assets are counted in the regulatory capital supporting C’s loan portfolio.  No one wants to mess with that at the moment.

Furthermore, C is not alone in having substantial deferred tax assets.  A C writedown might snowball into an investor demand for similar writedowns by other European and US banks.  That would be playing with fire, also.

–There’s a technical reason, as well.  It’s important to distinguish between a company’s financial reporting books, which it presents to investors, and its tax books, which it shows to the IRS.  A company may take a writedown of, say, $10 billion in US assets on its financial reporting books.

Let’s assume, to keep matters simple, that it has no other taxable US income.  If so, on its income statement, the company will show a pretax loss of $10 billion, a deferred tax benefit of $3.5 billion and an after-tax loss of $6.5 billion.  In the footnotes to its financials, it will show a tax carryforward of $3.5 billion.

What’s crucial is that it uses this accounting treatment whether it actually disposes of the assets or retains them at a nominal value on the balance sheet.  And it may not want to sell the assets right away.

Why not?  –because disposal of the assets is what starts the clock ticking on the limited time a company has to make use of the tax losses.  If you’re not making money now, it’s often better to hold off on disposal.  Doing so can extend the time you have to use the lax losses indefinitely.

In C’s case, we don’t know the details of what it has done.  Only C and its auditors know for sure.

Again, why am I writing about this? I think the C tax controversy is interesting, although I don’t own C and have no intention of buying any soon.  I also am intrigued by the idea that yesterday’s loss can be tomorrow’s asset value.  That can be a key issue in evaluating fallen angel bonds or turnaround stocks.  It also has important implications for mutual funds and ETFs, especially in times like these when the securities have big realized losses and are experiencing redemptions.  More on this last topic in a later post.