Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Look-through earnings

"Merry Christmas!" At least that's what I feel like saying every year around this time. Warren Buffett likes to publish his annual report to shareholders on a Saturday, but we get Christmas a few days early thanks to new SEC regulations. Needless to say, Berkshire's actual results were almost as good as its Chairman's commentary and advice.

This year, I thought it would be fun to present my investment's results using one of Mr. Buffett's favorite tools—look-through earnings. Essentially, I calculate my share of each companies earnings by multiplying the quarterly earnings per share by the number of shares I hold each quarter. Then I aggregate four quarters into a year and divide by the number of "shares" in my IRA. (For an explanation, see this article). This way, I can focus on the economic value the various businesses have added as if I owned each one outright. All 2007 numbers exist only in the imagination of analysts; I use them as placeholders to get an idea of what the future holds.

Earnings         2007*   2006    2005    2004    2003    2002
Oracle           0.19    0.13    0.21    0.30    0.44    0.34
Canon            0.31    0.28    0.49    0.34    0.08 
Select Comfort   0.26    0.19    0.27   
Berkshire        0.19    0.25    
Alberto-Culver   0.12    0.08    
Sally Beauty     0.04    0.00    
Look-through     1.12    0.93    0.97    0.64    0.52    0.34

* 2007 numbers are consensus analyst estimates.

The 2006 results are down in part to my purchase of Alberto-Culver and its spun-off subsidiary, Sally Beauty. I bought these shares more for the value I hoped would be unlocked by the spin-off and for the large special dividend (see below). Oracle has slowly been losing its share in my personal look-through earnings because it is a smaller part of my overall portfolio. On an absolute basis, its earnings have increased smartly.

Last year was the first in which I made more than 2 trades. Besides three new positions, I added to one of my old positions, executed three going-private, arbitrage transactions, initiated two more and sold one option. Plus I left substantial (relatively speaking) sums in cash. So my non-look-through earnings and costs were significant for the first time. In the following chart, I've included actual year-to-date results in the 2007 column.

Interest         0.01    0.16    0.01    0.03    0.02    0.00
Costs           (0.05)  (0.19)  (0.04)  (0.06)  (0.22)  (0.12)
Arbitrage        0.39    0.41    
Options          0.06     
Operating        1.47    1.32    0.94    0.61    0.32    0.23
Gain            11.28%  40.94%  52.78%  89.99%  41.50% 

My "operating" earnings are more impressive, smooth and meaningful when presented this way. The market value of my IRA is substantially more lumpy due to market fluctuations. Note that while the arbitrage earnings are quite significant for last year's results (not to mention this year's), they would be partially offset by a tax cost if this were a taxable account. I'm also batting 1.000 with a pitifully small sample size. One day I will experience a setback and the loss may very well wipe out significant gains.

Finally, if you add in my sale of Oracle a few years ago and the large special dividend from Sally Beauty, you will arrive at some very lumpy net earnings. Once again, these earnings benefit greatly from the tax-deferred status of the traditional IRA.

Realized Gain                                    1.79 
Special dividend         2.99    
Net              1.47    4.31    0.94    0.61    2.11    0.23
Gain           -65.97% 360.84%  52.78% -71.01% 827.21% 

The fun part about looking at results this way, is that it's easy to imagine being at the helm of a large conglomerate controlling an array of subsidiaries. But this approach ought to also aid an investor's thinking about the businesses he partially owns. Clearly, I will need to consider eliminating my Alberto-Culver and Sally Beauty stakes in the next few years if they do not improve performance. I might want to increase my investment in Oracle instead. Arbitrage and option activities have added considerably to my bottom line.

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