So what's the best, gimmick-proof way to measure how profitable companies really are? Answering that question gets to Warren Buffett's view of investing: Finding companies that consistently generate big returns on capital -- not only on the capital they manage now, but the fresh earnings that flow in each year. New investments that compound at double-digit rates are the ticket to fabulous performance for shareholders.
Jack Ciesielski, author of The Analyst's Accounting Observer, a newsletter prized by asset managers that skillfully demystifies accounting issues, has developed a fresh measure of profitability. His goal is to provide a clear view of managers' success in investing the capital entrusted to them by shareholders. He calls it "COROA," for cash operating return on assets. The idea is to measure management's ability to generate pure cash returns, not cash expected in the future, on every dollar invested in plants, R&D centers, inventories, and all other assets. "It makes sense for an investor to look at a firm's cash generation ability, relative to the cash invested it," Ciesielski wrote in the Feb. 25 edition of his newsletter, "The Analyst's Accounting Observer." For Ciesielski, it's all about cash. "What's more important in the world than cash?" he asks. "Why, it's more cash, of course."
The first step is ascertaining true operating cash flows, meaning every dollar collected during the fiscal year. That's not the number on the cash flow statement titled "cash flow from operating activities." For Ciesielski, two factors distort that figure, making it an unreliable measure of true performance. First, official cash flow is calculated after cash income taxes, so that falling taxes can create the illusion of ongoing progress. Second, interest is also subtracted, and the size of the annual interest levy reflects the level of leverage, but has nothing to do with how well management is managing their assets.
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