Why Financial Statements Don’t Work for Digital Companies
On February 13, 2018, the New York Times reported that Uber is planning an IPO. Uber’s value is estimated between $48 and $70 billion, despite reporting losses over the last two years. Twitter reported a loss of $79 million before its IPO, yet it commanded a valuation of $24 billion on its IPO date in 2013. For the next four years, it continued to report losses. Similarly, Microsoft paid $26 billion for loss-making LinkedIn in 2016, and Facebook paid $19 billion for WhatsApp in 2014 when it had no revenues or profits. In contrast, industrial giant GE’s stock price has declined by 44% over the last year, as news emerged about its first losses in last 50 years.
Why do investors react negatively to financial statement losses for an industrial firm but disregard such losses for a digital firm?
In the 2016 book The End of Accounting, NYU Stern Professor Baruch Lev claimed that over the last 100 years or so, financial reports have become less useful in capital market decisions. Recent research lets us make an even bolder claim: accounting earnings are practically irrelevant for digital companies. Our current financial accounting model cannot capture the principle value creator for digital companies: increasing return to scale on intangible investments.
This becomes clear when you look at a company’s two most important financial statements: the balance sheet and the income statement. For an industrial company dealing with physical assets and goods, the balance sheet presents a reasonable picture of productive assets and the income statement provides a reasonable approximation of expenses required to create shareholder value. But these statements have little salience for a digital company.
Let’s first look at the balance sheet. Assets reported on a balance sheet have to be physical in nature, have to be owned by the company, and be within the company’s confines. However, digital companies often have assets that are intangible in nature, and many have ecosystems that extend beyond the company’s boundaries. Consider Amazon’s Buttons and Alexa powered Echo, Uber’s cars, and Airbnb’s residential properties, for example. Many digital companies have no physical products and have no inventory to report. Therefore, the balance sheets of physical and digital companies present entirely different pictures. Contrast Walmart’s $160 billion of hard assets for its $300 billion valuation against Facebook’s $9 billion dollars of hard assets for its $500 billion valuation.
The building blocks for a digital company are research and development, brands, organizational strategy, peer and supplier networks, customer and social relationships, computerized data and software, and human capital. <Read More>