Focus on This: The Key MD&A Item in 2017 10-Qs

Next year the FASB’s new revenue recognition standard will go into effect for calendar year companies. The standard, ASU No. 2014-9, made a huge splash when it debuted in 2014. Yet 2018 is just around the corner, and estimates now made will likely need to be revised based on the effects of the standard. And there will be effects.

With such a long time between arrival and implementation, investors might have nodded off waiting for it to have any effect on their world.

Further contributing to their slumber: Companies have disclosed little about the anticipated effects of the new accounting standard, even though there’s a responsibility to inform investors in the MD&A. In recent months, the SEC has been urging companies to make more robust disclosures about the expected effects of the standard in MD&As, most visibly announcing as much at the September 22, 2016 Emerging Issues Task Force meeting. It’s likely to improve as the year goes on, and as more information makes it into the public domain, more earnings revisions than usual should result. This is no tweak to “miscellaneous expenses;” this is going to impact the single greatest number on the income statement, and one that matters to the valuation of some firms just as much as the bottom line. (Whatever bottom line is chosen these days…)

One outstanding disclosure in 2016 10-Ks appeared in that of Intel Corporation. Let’s pick apart a couple of the points they released about the expected effects:

"Our assessment has identified a change in revenue recognition timing on our component sales made to distributors. We expect to recognize revenue when we deliver to the distributor rather than deferring recognition until the distributor sells the components.

On the date of initial application, we will remove the deferred net revenue on component sales made to distributors through a cumulative adjustment to retained earnings. We expect the revenue deferral, historically recognized in the following period, to be offset by the acceleration of revenue recognition as control of the product transfers to our customer."

If you weren’t looking for it, you might have gone right past it. It boils down to this: under current revenue recognition standards, moving goods to a distributor isn’t a sale until the distributor sells the goods to an end user. The revenue associated with the transaction is deferred until the end user buys the goods. In 2018, that changes: when a customer obtains control of promised goods or services for consideration to which the seller is entitled, revenue is recognized. Intel’s distributors will now be considered to be customers - removing the waiting time between their possession and the sale to an end seller.

Intel will recognize revenue sooner - that’s evident from the above clip. This has implications on the other side of the sale, however: Intel’s distributors should be recognizing purchases of inventory sooner, and unless they’re selling it immediately after taking control, their inventory levels could look plenty different than in the past. That’s a natural flow-through of the standard’s application - but the distributors might not care. After all, the standard affects Intel’s revenue recognition - not the inventory practices of Intel’s distributors. If Intel alters its sales contracts in such a way to recognize the revenue sooner (without deferral) and puts all risk of loss on the distributors, however, and it was not structured that way previously, the inventory “bulge” at the distributor level could occur.

Another nugget:

"Our assessment has also identified a change in expense recognition timing related to payments we make to our customers for distinct services they perform as part of cooperative advertising programs. We expect to recognize the expense for cooperative advertising in the period the marketing activities occur. We currently recognize the expense in the period the customer is entitled to participate in the program, which coincides with the period of sale.

On the date of initial adoption, we will capitalize the expense of cooperative advertising not performed through a cumulative adjustment to retained earnings. We expect the recognition of capitalized advertising to offset the deceleration in expense recognition until the marketing services are performed."

Whatever you might have heard about the new revenue recognition standard, you might not have heard that it affects costs as well - and will permit capitalization of costs associated with revenues that are expected to be recovered. In Intel’s case, it appears that they’ll be capitalizing some co-operative advertising expenses - and they won’t be matched with sale of goods, but with the period in which marketing services actually occur.

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As the quarters tick by in 2017, the MD&A disclosure that might mean the most to the greatest number of investors is this one. And as the quarters tick by and firms find out more about the ways the new standard is going to affect them, the disclosures should only become more detailed and relevant.

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