Posts Tagged 'Gaap'

October 7, 2009

GAHAP Revisited. Otherwise titled “Credit Analysts, Statistics, and Common Sense”

From time to time, I have posted about my frustration with GAAP accounting and traditional credit analysis and how it is not friendly to the hosting business model. For a refresher, click here, here, here, here, and here. By GAHAP, I jokingly mean “generally accepted hosting accounting principles.”

Mike Jones came in my office after a frustrating phone call with a credit analyst. They were trying to talk through collateral possibilities. He told me that the credit analyst has a problem because we carry hardly any accounts receivable. The credit analyst wants something that he can collect in case of default. In GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles), accounts receivable is the total amount that you have billed your customers but have not yet collected from them. Common sense hint: the accounts receivable balance won’t pay your bills – they won’t get paid until you collect the cash.

SoftLayer includes this common sense in its business model. Rather than send out invoices and bug people to pay us later, we choose to have our customers pay us in advance of their use of products and services. Many other hosting companies do the same. There are many advantages to this: we save costs that we would incur collecting the cash, we reduce the amount of abusive accounts that would sign up for a few days of malicious activity and never pay us, and it helps facilitate the on-demand billing side of the cloud computing model.
Again, the disadvantage of this practice comes about when trying to educate a set-in-his-ways credit analyst about our business model. Here is the basic gist of a mythical conversation between a credit analyst and a hosting company:

Credit Analyst: “I see you don’t have any accounts receivable to speak of.”

Hosting Company: “I know! Isn’t that great?”

Credit Analyst: “But if you default, what can I collect?”

Hosting Company: “You’d simply continue to bill the customers for their continued business. Because our customer agreement is month-to-month, you just collect for their next month of service over the next 30 days and you’ve essentially done the same as collect receivables. In fact, that is far easier than collecting past due receivables. We’d be happy place the anticipated next month billing to our customers on the balance sheet in an accounts receivable type of account, but GAAP does not allow this.”

Credit Analyst: “Oh my…you don’t have long term contracts? So all of your customers could leave at once? Isn’t that risky?”

Hosting Company: “We have several thousand customers who trust us with mission critical needs. They will not all leave at once. Our statistics show only a very low percentage of customers terminate services each month. Even through the depths of the recession, we had more new customers joining us than we had customers leaving.”

Credit Analyst: “But conceptually, they could all leave at once since they have no contracts.”

Hosting Company: “That is statistically impossible. The odds of that event are so low that it’s immeasurable. As I said, we provide mission critical services to our customers. To think that they will all no longer need these services simultaneously is paranoid. And if they did, would a contract keep them paying us? That’s doubtful. Let me ask you – do you lend to the electric company or the phone company?”

Credit Analyst: “Of course.”

Hosting Company: “Do their customers sign long term contracts?”

Credit Analyst: “Some do for special promotions. But for the most part – no.”

Hosting Company: “So why do you lend to them?”

Credit Analyst: “Why, the customers can’t live without electricity or phones. That’s a no brainer.”

Hosting Company: “It is exactly the same with our business. In this information age economy, our customers cannot live without the hosting services that we provide. You should look at us in a similar way that you look at a utility company.”

Credit Analyst: “But we classify your business as a technology company. Can’t you just have your customers sign contracts?”

Hosting Company: “Well, wouldn’t that conflict with the on-demand, measured billing aspects of cloud computing?”

Credit Analyst: “I guess there’s not much hope of you building up a sizeable accounts receivable balance then.”

Hosting Company: “It really makes no sense for us to do that.”

Credit Analyst: “We may not be able to do business with you. Do you have any real estate?”

Conclusion: Most credit analysts are so wrapped up in GAAP that they’ve forgotten the laws of statistics and many have even lost touch with common sense. Is it any wonder we’ve had a big banking crisis over the past couple of years?

April 14, 2009

EVA, Cloud Computing, and the Capex vs. Opex Debate

So far in 2009, there’s been a fair amount of discussion pro and con regarding the financial benefits (or lack thereof) of cloud computing. It’s very reminiscent of the whole “do-it-yourself” or “outsource it” debate. Blog posts like this and articles like this are samples of the recent debate.

One thing I have not yet seen or heard discussed regarding cloud computing is the concept of EVA, or Economic Value Added. Let me add at this point that EVA is a registered service mark of EVA Dimensions LLC and of Stern Stewart & Co. It is the concept of economic income instead of accounting income. SoftLayer subscribes to software from EVA Dimensions LLC. Get more info here.

For you to buy into the premise of this post, you’ll have to be sold on EVA as a valuable metric. Bottom line, EVA cleans up the distortions of GAAP and aligns all areas of the business so that more EVA is always better than less EVA. Most other metrics when pushed to extremes can actually harm a business, but not EVA. Yes, even bottom line GAAP net income when pushed to an extreme can harm a business. (How that can happen is fodder for another blog post.) Several books have been written about EVA and its benefits, so that’s too much to write about in this post. This is a good summary link, and for more info you can Google it on your own. And if you do Google it on your own, be warned that you may have to wade through links regarding Eva Longoria and/or Eva Mendes .

Part of the Cloud computing debate revolves around “capex vs. opex.” Specifically, this involves paying for IT infrastructure yourself using capital expenditures (“capex”) or employing Cloud computing and buying IT infrastructure with operating expenditures (“opex”). Geva Perry recently said, “There is no reason to think that there is a financial benefit to making an OpEx expense vs. CapEx expense. Period.” I disagree. When you look at this in terms of EVA, whether you use capex or opex can make a big difference in creating value for your business.

Let’s look at the effect of switching capex to opex on EVA. Coca-Cola is a company that employs EVA. Years ago, they decided to ship their beverage concentrate in single-use cardboard containers instead of reusable stainless steel. This made GAAP measures worse – profit and profit margins actually went down. But EVA went up by making the move from capex to opex. How can this be? Grab something caffeinated and check out some numbers here if you dare.

OK, that’s all fine. But how would shifting IT spending from capex to opex affect EVA? Glad you asked. Last summer, I modeled some full-fledged financials to illustrate financial benefits of outsourcing IT vs. doing it yourself. I’ve taken those and added the EVA calcs to them. Take another swig of caffeine and check them out here and here.

Assuming that EVA is a worthwhile metric (and I think it is), moving capex to opex is possibly a very good financial decision. Any questions? As always, your mileage may vary. Model carefully!

January 9, 2008

More "GAHAP"

Our CEO said “so when will our next blog post on GAHAP come out?” By GAHAP he means “generally accepted hosting accounting principles.” He asked for it, so you get it :). If GAHAP bores you, try this on your iPhone. It’s fun!

I could probably squeeze everyone left reading at this point in a Dodge Viper and we could discuss this over lunch. But SL doesn’t provide Vipers to executives so I guess I’ll post it here for you. A balance sheet by definition is a snapshot of the current financial condition of a company. Here's a formal definition. A GAAP balance sheet simply doesn’t portray an accurate picture of the financial condition of a hosting company.

Probably the most important value that a GAAP balance sheet completely misses is the value produced by monthly recurring revenue. By implementing some sort of fair value accounting as I mentioned before this value gets captured. But on that part of the balance sheet, it still doesn’t help someone looking at the dreaded current ratio. So here’s a way to get a measure of this value that matches up to current liabilities on the balance sheet and get a current ratio that better reflects the company’s true financial position.

Since current liabilities include debt that must be paid at any time over the next 12 months, I would propose using statistics to walk forward 12 months and add “Future EBITDA from Existing Customers” as a current asset on the balance sheet. I can sense the shudders of all accountants who are reading this because you’re thinking that this completely abandons the revered principle of conservatism. In hosting, however, this can be done with conservatism in mind by employing statistics. Public accounting auditors employ statistics every day in their work, so the use of statistics is not a foreign concept to accountants.

Here’s how I’d propose hosting companies do this. First, look at the behavior of the current customer base at the beginning of each month regarding customer churn and the purchase of incremental business by remaining customers. Ignore all new customers acquired during the month and add them to the customer base for next month’s analysis. For each month over the past 12 months, analyze how much revenue is lost from customers who leave and net that from how much revenue is recognized from the existing customers who remain. The results of this analysis can be statistically boiled down to give you an idea of how much revenue will come in over the next 12 months even if you do not gain a single new customer during the next 12 months. That’s the principle of conservatism coming into play here. Let’s call this “statistically stable anticipated revenue.” By the way, at SoftLayer, the incremental business from customers who stay is greater than the business lost from customers who leave us.

Second, take a look at EBITDA margins over the past 12 months and work the statistical mojo to get an idea of EBITDA margins going forward. Multiply this margin against the statistically stable anticipated revenue to arrive at “Future EBITDA from Existing Customers.”

Third, add this category as a new line in the Current Assets portion of the balance sheet as well as adding it as a new line in the Stockholder’s Equity portion of the balance sheet. The resulting balance sheet is much closer to the true financial condition of a hosting company than a traditional GAAP balance sheet.

Why is this view more accurate? 1) A hosting company isn’t like a retail store. Like a hosting company, retail stores have repeat customers but the repeat behavior is more sporadic. The customer may decide that the weather is too bad and they’ll run out and get that new pair of shoes another day. Or the weekend may have been too hectic for a grocery store run so they’ll eat out for the next week. With hosting customers, mission-critical things live on their servers and they are usually set up on automatic monthly billings. Repeat sales are much more predictable than for customers of retail stores. This consistent cash flow has real value, and to not capture it on the balance sheet negatively distorts the financial condition of the company. 2) Putting this statistically solid future EBITDA as a current asset allows a better picture of the current ratio because it is from this EBITDA that the current portion of the company’s debt will be paid. This gives a banker, etc., a clear view of whether the company will struggle over the next year to pay them back.

Here’s how a sample summary balance sheet would look before and after this adjustment.

                                                  <b>GAAP</b>            <b>"GAHAP"</b>
Cash, A/R, Other Current Assets                $33,218,805     $33,218,805
Future EBITDA from Existing Customers        <u>           $0     $26,575,044</u>
Total Current Assets                           $33,218,805     $59,793,849 
 
Fixed Assets                                   $90,355,150     $90,355,150
Other Assets                                    $9,301,265      $9,301,265
                                             =============================
<strong>Total Assets</strong>                                  $132,875,221    $159,450,265 
 
Current Liabilities                            $55,807,593     $55,807,593
<strong>Long Term Liabilities</strong>                          $67,766,363     $67,766,363 
 
Stock, Paid in Capital, Retained Earnings       $9,301,265      $9,301,265
Future EBITDA from Existing Customers        <u>           $0     $26,575,044</u>
<strong>Total Stockholder's Equity</strong>                      $9,301,265     $35,876,310
                                             =============================                                                                                   
<strong>Total Liabilities and Stockholder's Equity</strong>    $132,875,221    $159,450,265 
 
Current Ratio                                         0.60            1.07

-Gary

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September 18, 2007

Current Ratio Punishes Hosting

For the third (and final!) installment in this likely sleep-inducing trilogy of hosting and accounting blog posts, we'll cover Current Ratio and how it doesn't treat hosting companies fairly. Bear with me – this rant may run a bit longer than normal.

Current Ratio is easy to compute – simply go to the balance sheet and divide current assets by current liabilities and voila! You have the Current Ratio. OK, so what does it mean?

So why is this unfair to hosting companies? Well, where does most of the cash of a hosting company go? Into servers and networking gear! But guess what? These don't fall under current assets on the balance sheet and thus are excluded from the Current Ratio calculation. As a result, I'd wager that most if not all hosting companies have at some point been in the position of current liabilities being greater than current assets, where conventional wisdom says "the company may have problems meeting its short term obligations."

How does this hurt hosting companies? Suppose the company could use some short term financing for a network upgrade. If they go talk to a banker about this the banker might throw up his hands and say "I can't help you…you're in financial distress according to your Current Ratio."

I would argue with the banker that this is not necessarily so. Traditional GAAP places servers and networking gear in the bucket of long term assets along with things like buildings, bulldozers, cranes, heavy machinery, etc. For a hosting company, this placement just doesn't make sense.

Long-term assets, or capital assets, are things that typically can't be reconfigured, can't be easily converted into cash, and are used for a long period of time. A hosting company's, buildings, generators, HVAC gear, etc., is rightly classified in long term assets. But servers and networking gear are quite different in that they exhibit more traits of current assets than long term assets. Check out this definition. It would take far less than a year for a hosting company to convert its server fleet and networking gear into cash and these assets are the key source of funds for day-to-day operations.

A manufacturing company gets to count its inventory in current assets, whether it is raw materials, work in progress, or finished goods ready for sale. A hosting company uses its servers and networking gear in much the same way – it can reconfigure the processors and drives of servers, arrange the networking gear to offer new services, virtualize a server into several virtual machines or combine several servers into a grid. Then it can change things up next month if desired. This sounds more like current assets than a bulldozer. But according to GAAP and the 800 year old double-entry math system we must use today, servers get placed in the same bucket as bulldozers.

My question is, how do hosting companies as an industry get together and establish some specific accounting standards that will allow our financial statements to truly reflect our business? Simply moving servers and networking gear to current assets would more accurately reflect how we use them in our business.

Am I off base in asking this? Hardly. The real estate investment business has been doing this for years. Traditional GAAP simply made no sense to their business, and they developed accounting standards that fairly represent that business. See this and note this quote from the Real Estate Information Standards, which is published by the National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries and is widely accepted among the real estate investment management industry and the firms that audit that industry:

"The development of the Market Value Accounting and Reporting Standards resulted primarily from the realization that standardization of meaningful financial reporting was necessary in order to allow real estate to become more acceptable as an institutional investment asset class. Accounting standards promulgated by authoritative accounting bodies exist for various real estate entities, including public real estate investment trusts and other public and private real estate entities that utilize historical cost accounting [i.e. GAAP – my comment]. The reporting requirements and information expectations of the institutional real estate investment community required the development of a market value-based financial reporting model for which no accounting standards published by authoritative accounting bodies presently exist. Accordingly, the lack of adequate authoritative guidance applicable to market value accounting for institutional real estate investment vehicles necessitated the need for these standards to be published."

Translated out of accountant-speak, this simply says that GAAP didn't fit their business and they applied common sense to the situation. I suggest that this young business of web hosting also needs some industry specific accounting standards to fairly report information about the health of its companies to its investors, and that these standards do not presently exist. Finally, if you've made it all the way through to here, you may order a server with free double RAM up to 2 GB by using the promo code "toothpaste&OJ" anytime over the next week. [subject to approval by Lance of course]

-Gary

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September 10, 2007

You Can’t Judge Health by Net Income Alone

In GAAP, net income is the bottom line. It's supposed to tell you if you're making money or losing money. But the amount on the bottom line is never equal to your bank balance and by itself, it's an inadequate measure of a hosting company's health.

For example, depreciation is subtracted before you arrive at net income. But depreciation is not cash going out the door. It represents the theoretical drop in book-value of something you own, such as servers. Ideally, the timing of depreciation should match the length of time you actually use something, so if you use a server for three years, its value would depreciate to zero over three years.

Problem is, from the years of hosting experience we have in this company, we know that servers bought in the early 2000's are still in use today. Many were depreciated over three years, but they're still generating sales revenue long after they've been depreciated to a value of $0. What this means is that net income from these servers was effectively UNDERSTATED during their first three years of use and that net income is currently OVERSTATED for the periods of use after their value has dropped to $0 on the books.

But since I have to judge a hosting company's health based on Net Income, here's how I do it. If net income is positive and it's greater than depreciation expense, one of two things is going on. Either they're knocking it out of the park in this asset-intensive business or they're not reinvesting enough to remain technologically relevant. If net income is positive but less than depreciation expense, they're likely healthy. If net income is negative and the absolute value of depreciation expense is greater than the absolute value of net income, the company could be fundamentally sound and worthy of receiving credit. Bankers will likely disagree with me, but my opinion here is hosting-business specific. Finally, if net income is negative and the absolute value of net income is greater than the absolute value of depreciation expense, then the company needs to adjust something to get healthy.

If you ask me, cash generation from operations is a much better indicator of the health of a hosting company. It ignores distortions like this mismatched depreciation. It will also tell you if the company generates enough cash to cover its debt service and/or to continue investing to stay technologically relevant.

Got that? If I haven't lost you already, I'll talk about how the normal Current Ratio calculation unfairly penalizes hosting companies next time.

-Gary

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September 6, 2007

Hosting and GAAP Accounting: Like Toothpaste and Orange Juice

Hosting and GAAP accounting go together like toothpaste and orange juice.

If you're confused go brush your teeth and drink a big glass of orange juice. I've held out as long as I can, but I just cannot restrain myself from a post or two about the hosting business and accounting. So if this will make your eyes roll back in your head, please stop reading now and click here before you keel over.

In many ways, good ole GAAP just doesn't treat the hosting business fairly. Relative to accounting, hosting is a new phenomenon with roots dating back only into the 1990s. This is ancient in Internet time but double-entry accounting dates back to the 12th century, and the first accounting textbook describing the double-entry system was penned by Luca Pacioli in 1494. The double-entry system was used because mathematicians denied the reality of negative numbers until the 16th century and the double-entry system was used as a workaround for the lack of negative numbers.

So, why must we account for paradigm-changing Internet businesses with an archaic 800 year old math system? It's a classic example of the old "square peg – round hole" cliché. Toothpaste and orange juice.

Applying this 800 year old system to the hosting business often paints a flawed picture of the financial position of a hosting company. And there are a lot of folks in the financial world that either can't understand this or don't want to understand this by thinking outside the normal accounting paradigm.

I'll blog about two examples of this: 1) Net Income and 2) Current Ratio. My next post will cover Net Income and we'll discuss Current Ratio thereafter.

-Gary

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