Wednesday, August 4, 2010

EBITDA and Stock-Based Compensation

The acronym "Ebitda" is in the news again.

For the record, this stands for "earnings before interest, taxation, depreciation and amortization," and is sometimes thought a useful statistic as an approximation of cash flow.

Over time, the significance once attributed to the P/E ratio has come to be relocated -- the value/EBITDA ratio is now the important one.

Value, for such purposes, is a modification of the simpler statistic of market cap, or price.

So: why do I bring it up today? Because it is in the news, of late. Two listed companies, Penson Worldwide (NASDAQ: PNSN) and Comtech Telecommunications (NASDAQ: CMTL) have been called out on fiddling with their EBITDA calculation.

Penson has added stock-based compensation into the EBITDA figure, while Comtech has addedf the amortizationof stock-based compensation. Well ... the A does stand for amortization, but not as it happens that amortization.

Of course, if the EBITDA figure itself can be jiggered with in this way, then any ratios of which EBITDA forms a part become less useful for any investors who might be relying on them. If an investor is diligently working out the value-to-EBIDTA ratio, he'll end up with a smaller ratio that he "should" for these firms. Smaller, that is, than he would if the rules were adhered to consistently. That smaller ratio might well lead him to include, "these stocks are at bargain prices."

Sam Antar has done good work bringing these shenanigans to public notice, and I congratulate him on that.

Another way of looking at this story, though is as a new episode in a continuing controversy over how to account for stock-based compensation. On that, I hope to have something to say next week.

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