Monday, February 19, 2018

Profit laundering

[I need to come back to this in more detail later, but just so it doesn't sit in the queue forever, here's a quick rundown of the concept.]

It's not always rational, but investors care a great deal about where the money comes from. Two companies with exactly the same cost and revenue numbers will often be valued very differently. Sometimes, the preferences are based on perceived possibilities for growth or fears about the future of a particular business or market. Other times, it comes down to the sexiness of the industry and/or the buzz and halo effect surrounding the company.

Obviously, management will do everything it can to put their businesses in the hot category. When a company has multiple sources of revenue of varying attractiveness, it will do its best to maximize the perceived portion of the money coming from the cool streams and minimize the perceived amount coming from the uncool.

We saw some really blatant examples of this in the 90s Internet boom – – companies using brick-and-mortar profits to create the impression of online success – – but it certainly preceded that and it's never gone away since.

The lesson that many investors and most business/financial journalists need to take away from this is that, whenever you have a company with multiple revenue streams, one or more of which is particularly sexy, you should always assume you are being to some degree misled about which stream is actually bringing in the profits.

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