Those who study financial reporting might find this information rather interesting, both accountants who prepare financial statements and analysts who interpret those statements. You can find additional information in this analysis here. While this analysis focuses on "Income (Loss) from Equity Method Investments", these same ideas apply to other financial statement line items.
Here are the facts as I see and understand them. Not all economic entities have investments which are accounted for using the equity method, but if an entity does then they most likely report "Income (Loss) from Equity Method Investments". (This is another reference for equity method accounting.) The accounting standards state that this line item must be "reported as a single line item on the income statement." The SEC has additional information as to how this line item is reported in Reg S-X. The FASB Accounting Standards Codification (ASC) summarizes what they think Reg S-X says.
So, I challenge you to sort through all those reference materials to figure out exactly how the line item "Income (loss) from equity method investments" should be reported. In addition to reading through all that material, here is other information which I gathered:
- Multiple sources confirm that while the accounting literature states that this line item must be reported as a single and separate line item, WHERE it must be disclosed is not as clear.
- Some reference material states that reporting this line item with the other "separately reported items" such as discontinued operations and extraordinary items is the best practice.
- The US GAAP XBRL Taxonomy represents this line item in two ways: before taxes as a separate line item and after taxes as a separate line item.
- One highly regarded accountant that I talked to says that this should ONLY be reported and ALWAYS be reported after taxes because the line item can be used to manipulate the effective tax rate.
So, now let us see exactly how public companies report this information. Per an analysis of 9,679 XBRL-based financial filings, 1,048 or about 11% of economic entities reported this line item. Of that 1,048 this is where they reported that line item in their income statement:
- 624 entities (60%) reported the line item before tax directly as part of income (loss) from continuing operations before tax
- 110 entities (10%) reported the line item after tax
- 128 entities (12%) reported the line item as part of nonoperating income (expense)
- 20 entities (2%) reported the line item as part of revenues
- 10 entities (less than 1%) reported the line item as part of costs and expenses
- 8 entities (less than 1%) reported the line item as part of operating expenses
- 2 entities (less than 1%) reported the line item as a sibling to income tax expense (benefit)
- 60 entities (6%) created an extension concept and the line item rolls up to that extension concept
- 86 entities (8%) did something else which was not directly analyzed so exact placement is unknown
The first thing that I learned when I did this analysis is that I did not really understand that this variability was even allowed. Intuitively as a professional accountant, I was surprised. Other accountants I spoke with were likewise surprised that income (loss) from equity method investments could be included within revenues. And I am not saying that any of these reporting entities did anything wrong. I am simply making an observation.
These observations raise the following questions in my mind.
- What is the purpose of this line item bouncing around the income statement so much? Is there a legitimate reason why entities which use US GAAP have so much flexibility with this line item and not nearly the flexibility with other line items? (I have not analyzed 100% of all the fundamental accounting concepts yet, but this line item has the most variability that I have seen thus far.)
- Why exactly does this variability exist for this line item, but other line items do not have so much variability? Are the accounting standards ambiguous? Was it a conscious choice to allow this variability, or was it caused by a sloppily written accounting standard?
- What would happen if someone like the SEC or FASB would say, "This line item always goes after tax with other special reporting items, similar to discontinued operations and extraordinary items." Could the FASB or SEC do this? Should the FASB or SEC do this? Would analysts be happy about this or would they not like this to be forced into one slot on the income statement? I really don't know the appropriate answer to this question, but it seems to be a reasonable question.
- Chevron includes income (loss) from equity method investments within revenues, you can see this on their income statement. Chevron did not feel the need to create an extension concept for us-gaap:Revenues. Chevron clearly changed the definition of that concept by including that line item within revenues. Should Chevron have created an extension concept?
- Exxon did pretty much exactly the same thing Chevron did, including income (loss) from equity method investments as part of revenues, but then the DID create an extension concept to express revenues which included that concept. Who is right, Chevron or Exxon? Are both approaches allowable? Should both approaches be allowable, extend or not extend?
- Caterpillar reported income (loss) from equity method investments after tax, they created an extension concept cat:ProfitOfConsolidatedCompanies with the definition "Income (Loss) from Continuing Operations less Income Taxes and before Income (Loss) from Equity Method Investments" because they feel they moved income (loss) from equity method investments.
- Most of the other 110 who reported this information after tax did NOT create an extension concept.
What is the most interesting about this analysis is the fact that you can even perform this analysis and do so very effeciently and effectively. How? XBRL-enabled structured information. Each financial report alone and all financial reports collectively are data in a database which can be queried, sorted, sliced, diced. That has huge value.
Accountants work hard to represent information within a financial report. Sometimes the reference materials they have to work with are more ambiguous than one would prefer. One thing that is not ambiguous is what reporting entities actually do. External financial reporting managers pay people like Big 4 consultants a lot of money to sort through reporting issues. Smaller CPA firms have to likewise understand how to create financial reports. Actual financial reports are, in my view, the best resource for understanding how to create a financial report.
Certified public accountants have a duty and responsibility to improve the art of accounting. Improving the art of accounting enhances the profession of accounting. Certified public accountants have a duty to serve the public interest. The needs of both the reporting entities who create reports and the investors/analysts who use the reports must be balanced.
To employ the tools of XBRL-based digital financial reporting correctly, professional accountants need to learn the tool of digital financial reporting correctly. The rules are slightly different for human and machine-readable information than they are for human-only readable information the profession has been dealing with for 100 years. Making the change is not hard, it is just a little different. Machines are not smart, they are dumb. Machines only act smart if smart people make the machined serve their needs.
Personally, I don't understand all the answers, but I think I have a lot of very, very good questions.