IAG, or the International Airlines Group, is the the parent of Aer Lingus, British Airways and Iberia. In my university, we were lucky enough to have their CEO, Willie Walsh, speak to us before Christmas.
Some things he mentioned are relevant to this blog, and of course interesting. One thing Mr Walsh noted was how only in recent years has the airline sector actually made a return on capital. This must be attributable in some way to a focus on cost by the sector in recent years. The chart below from IATA shows what I mean. As you can see, the cost of capital was higher than the return until 2014.
As my last post indicated, a focus on cost and efficiency has been a feature of the airline sector in recent years. To give another example, Mr Walsh cited an example of using two larger aircraft on a route without a loss in passenger capacity. So fuel, crew and capital cost all decrease in such a scenario. In addition, it freed up a slot at London’s Heathrow airport, which can then be used to generate more revenues.
Probably my favourite (spectator) sport is motor cycle road-racing. There aren’t too many places it still happens – doing 180mph on public roads is not for everyone – but thankfully it still happens here in Ireland, the Isle of Man (IOM) and a few other places.
The IOM TT is probably the pinnacle of road-racing – it’s two weeks of fund each June. imagine my delight when I read an article featuring news on the 2016 TT and creative accounting! The article notes the number of TT visitors for 2016 to be similar to 2015 – based on data from the IOM government. The article also suggested a revenue of £738 per visitor for the economy, based on this same data. In the comments beneath the article, the fun starts.
One comment notes:
“This year’s TT races in June brought a £4.1 million benefit to the island’s exchequer, according to government figures just released.” OK, so that is the claimed revenue, now let’s see the total costs. And by total, I mean the total cost to the island not just the cost of TT preparations. How much for a fatality or serious injury involving medevac? How much for the road closures and effects on businesses as well as the public? These are real costs and the list goes on.
I note the total expenditure of £738 pp is not broken down into for example travel costs and monies spent on island. Therefore that figure is meaningless If the figures of £31.3M, £22.5M and £4.1M are based on the £738pp they are also meaningless. Creative accounting it is for sure. In addition, if the government can come up with a figure for the benefit to the island they must be in possession of all costs, such as DOI, medical, policing, helicopters etc. So why do they never produce such figures?
These two sharp commentators highlight many things -the subjective major of accounting, where costs and revenues are attributed, and what are the relevant costs, for example. I’ll be using this example in my teaching at some future point.
In recent years many operations – both business and public sector – have been closed or reduced in capacity to save costs. Closing an operation is one of the topics I often teach too. When I teach, the basic message is to focus on the fixed costs, and how much can be reduced or eliminated. Of course, some labour costs are increasingly seen as fixed – and this may be a more certain feature in the public sector.There may also be some hidden or unforeseen costs, which are often not included in the analysis. Let me give you two recent examples, both of which are from the public sector.
In Ireland, the government closed down 139 Garda (police) stations due to economic woes. Most of these closures were in rural areas. The total annual cost saving is estimated at just over €500,000 – see here. This is likely due to the fact that only the only savings were operating costs of the stations e.g. light and heat were the only real costs saved. Police staff and equipment simply moved to another station – where costs may have been incurred to accommodate them. There is a big hidden cost though, which is increased rural crime. While there was probably no money value on this cost in any cost estimates prepared, I’d be quite sure it is higher than closing stations. Recently, the decision to close has been reversed.
A second example comes from Lambeth council in London who closed two libraries – see here . According to a report in the Guardian, the daily security cost is higher than the cost of keeping the libraries open. There seems to have been some protests against the closure of one library in particular, which drove up the costs. This unforeseen cost, if included in the closure decision might have changed things.
My colleague Michael Farrell has written a nice post explaining the dodgy accounting transactions at Anglo Irish Bank – the bank that was a big part of the Irish financial crisis in recent years.
Former executives from Anglo Irish Bank (“Anglo”) and Irish Life and Permanent (“ILP”) are alleged to have conspired to mislead investors by setting up a €7.2bn circular transaction scheme to bolster Anglo’s balance sheet in 2008.
The simplified debits and credits (from Anglo’s perspective) for the “circular transaction” as it’s being called are as follows:
1) Amount put on deposit with Anglo by ILP:
Dr Cash €7.2bn
Cr Customer Deposits €7.2bn (shown as a liability)
2) Amount “lent” to ILP by Anglo:
Dr Loans and Advances to Banks €7.2bn (shown as an asset)
Cr Cash €7.2bn
Per the above, the transaction is cash neutral, so what’s the big deal? The issue is that the €7.2bn recorded as a customer deposit with the bank would be (and was) incorrectly interpreted by the bank’s wider stakeholders as a measure of customer confidence in the bank.
So where do the accounting rules stand on…
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You have probably heard about the amount of fruit and vegetables wasted in the food supply chain. This waste “occurs” for three main reasons. First, in less developed countries, poor transport and storage can result in waste. This also happens in larger developed countries, where distances mean fruit/veg cannot survive the trip. Second, the exacting standards imposed by retailers as to the size and shape of fresh fruit and vegetables causes growers to simply dump large quantities each year. Third, end consumers throw away perfectly good food.
Personally, I grow some fruit in a small suburban garden. We never but jam, as I make enough for the household for the whole year. We have 2-3 months worth of pears and apples, and some years the “leftover” fruit become wine – blackcurrant wine is quite nice. So, from a small say 10m2 plot, I can do all this and have zero waste. On a commercial scale, things are different. The waste is immorally high, primarily due to the exacting standards of retailers. I can tell you that the apples and pears I grow may be all shapes and sizes, but they taste so much better than anything I can buy in the supermarket – and my neighbours all agree.
To give a snapshot of how much perfectly good fruit and vegetables we waste each year as a race, National Geographic (March 2016) provides some stark numbers. In total, 53% of fruit and vegetables never makes it to the market – 20% is lost at the farm due mainly to exacting standards, 19% is uneaten and discarded at home, 3% lost in transit/storage, 2% lost in processing (canning/baking) and 9% discarded by wholesales and retailers. Add to this the resources used to harvest and prepare what is wasted – 70 times the oil lost in Deep Water Horizon and enough water to fill the Volga, and that’s just one year in the US alone. To add another number, the annual total food waste (all foods) could feed 2 billion people.
From these stark numbers, what can (management) accountants do? Recently, some documentaries on British TV featured vegetable growers saying the loose perhaps £100,000 per month worth of vegetables – assuming it could be sold at market price. Nowhere is this accounted for, not in their accounts, in supermarket accounts, in our national accounts (GDP). What if these accounts included the cost of waste? I’m sure if they did, we would all stand up and take notice.
The above headline appeared in an article in The Times recently. There is something fundamentally incorrect in what it says, which I detail below. Let me say first that I am bashing the article author or the paper, as most papers do such things when covering firm performance.
So what is wrong with above statement? Simply, it is the application of the accruals concept in accounting. Under this concept, revenues and expenses are matched, and when cash is received/paid is not relevant – at least in the calculation of profit.
Here is a simple example. Let’s assume a business sells goods for $1,000 cash but has not paid the supplier. The goods cost $600. The profit on this is $400. If the supplier is never paid, or is paid in 10 days, the profit will not change.
While the article is incorrect in terms of the title, it’s message is solid – that you can benefit by not paying people. In the simple example above, the business has $1000 in the bank.
To this audience I ask two questions
- do you understand short-term versus long-term? If you do, which applies to your decision-making?
- are there any trained management accountants working in banks? I know there are, so read below if you are one of them.
While driving back from Cork recently, I heard a decent sounding lady with six kids telling a story about how a bank was repossessing the house her family rented – it was the Joe Duffy show on RTE Radio 1. The landlord could not afford the loan repayments it seemed and the bank wanted to sell the house. The family worked, and had sufficient income to pay rent into the future. The husband worked in a state-job, so as secure as you could get. She tried to communicate with the bank, but got a “computer says no” type response from the bank. To me, and I am just a management accountant, not a banking expert I could not see the logic in selling the house. Something instinctively told me taking a longer term view is a better choice.
Based on the information she gave during the radio show, when I reach my home I opened an Excel sheet. I checked the rent the lady might be paying – from daft.ie – and then I started to use the simple PMT function in Excel. I made assumptions that the landlord stopped paying the bank loan based on the original house value in 2010; that the bank would allow the lady to take over the mortgage at the present market value of the house and at the present interest rate. I did not adjust for the time value of money. You can see all my workings at this link:
The total time to do the above calculations was about 20 mins. I admit, Excel is not perfect, and I do not adjust for the time value of money – I don’t think it will make things vastly different. To keep it short, if the bank allowed the lady to take over the house as described above, they would gain to the tune of just under €86,000. Based on my simple calculations, the lady could afford to pay this. So, taking a longer term view, the bank (and by definition it’s shareholders) would benefit compared to ditching the house now.
Some further points on costs. I ignore legal costs, as the bank would have to suffer legal costs on either a sale or re-mortgage. But there is a bigger elephant in the room on costs. The lady would be homeless, someone would have to pay this cost – directly or indirectly, and ultimately the state. If I extrapolate the social costs, what is the family (who seemed decent) became homeless, the family fabric was disturbed and the kids turn to crime in the future. How much would this cost in money terms ?
So back to my questions. The scenario I describe above is being repeat all across Ireland. As a person, and an accountant this annoys me. The view of banks seems to be short-term only, driven by profit only. Now don’t get me wrong, profit is good, it creates jobs and investment. But we must not view profit from a short-term perspective. So, to the bankers, give me an answer to the above questions. If you are a trained management accountant, you should be thinking long-term, and if not, don’t think you cannot fail by taking short-term views. As you know banks have failed, as the leading image here should remind you.
Working capital is defined as current assets less current liabilities. Current assets are inventory, receivables and cash, while current liabilities are amounts owed to suppliers, bank overdraft and other short term liabilities such as taxes due.
Managing working capital is very important. Tie up too much money in inventory and the business is in trouble. A recent report by PWC suggests companies are still not managing working capital as best they can. Read about it and some suggestions to improve working capital here.
Ryanair made a profit of €865 million in 2014. The Irish Times reports this figure and also notes “operating profits rose 65 per cent to €1 billion from €658 million”. Great news for Ryanair. The main reasons for increased profit seem to be a combination of lower fuel costs and increased passenger numbers. What sort of annoys me about such media reports – and all media seem to do this, not just the Irish Times – is that such reporting of numbers does not tell the full story.
Let’s take a brief look at more detail. In this example from Ryanair (or any company) on profits, we also need to consider the level of investment in assets. Forgetting about accounting for a moment, it is logical to think that if Ryanair for example acquired more aircraft, then it should be able to generate more profits due to increased passenger revenue. But, if we just make a statement like “profits rose by 65%”, this does not reveal the underlying assets.
The same Irish Times article reports that net assets (assets less liabilities) did in fact rise from €3.3 billion to €4 billion in the year. If we do a simple return on assets calculation (using operating profits), then for 2013 the return is 658/3300 = 19.9% and for 2014 it is 1000/4000, or 25%. This is a year on year increase in the return on assets of about 26%. This is a long way off the 65% reported increase in operating profit, and a lot more meaningful as it reflects the net assets (or capital) used. It is still a great improvement, but perhaps not so sensational a 65%!
You may know the gross profit margin ratio, which is:
Gross Profit x 100
Gross profit is: Sales – Cost of Sales
Cost of Sales = Opening inventory + Purchases/cost of production – Closing Inventory.
In this short post I would just like to share some of my experiences on the versatility of this simple ratio. If we look at the elements of the ratio, it is easy to see that if each element remain stable, the answer should also be stable. So for example, if I buy something for €40, sell it for €100, then my GP margin is 60%. If my sales price or purchase price changes, then the GP margin changes. Then, if we think about inventory levels, if these fluctuate the GP margin changes too. Taking all this together, it’s easy enough to see how any business typically knows what its GP margin should be. Thus, if it varies considerably, there may be something wrong.
Here are two things I know the GP margin is used for. One, from my own experience, is in pubs/bars. Most pubs/bars are susceptible to fraud and controls typically put in place by owners. One such control is monthly stock-takes and monthly accounts. A fall in the GP margin could indicate “lost” stock or unrecorded cash receipts – which further controls may reveal. Another use is to spot inflated revenues. Businesses may want to make their profits look better and thus do things like invoice for goods early, before the end of a financial year. These good may not even be bought/made yet. Thus, the GP margin may be lower. Again further investigation is needed to find the issue.
There may of course be more simple reasons for changes in the GP margin – costs and sales prices may simply change and affect the ratio. But once these have been ruled out, it is a useful indicator.
One thing really annoys me about how the media reports company performance – they only ever give % increases or decreases in sales or profit typically.
If you have ever studied accounting you probably learned about ratios analysis, and how just looking at absolute numbers ( like sales or profit ) can give a false picture. Here’s a recent example from the Irish Times to illustrate what I mean.
According to the Irish Times (see here :
“Irish-owned book and stationery retailer Eason & Son has recorded a net profit after tax of €2.3 million in its financial year to January 2014, compared with €2.6 million the previous year. Eason Group revenues, however, were down 7.1 per cent to €227.4 million, in what the company called a “challenging year”.”
All the above is true, but if we do a quick calculation, profit as a % of sales ( profit margin ) is pretty much the same from one year to another. So despite a 7% drop in sales, costs must also have been well managed to maintain a stable profit margin. I appreciate the media try to keep these reports simple for the general public, but a little more depth would be very useful.
I recently got a flat rate taxi fare from an airport in Europe – a bit of an adventure, the guy was really moving it. And the rate was of course cheaper than normal taxi fare which at airports are usually more expensive . So then I started to think about apps like Hailo (and the latest one Uber). Can these reduce taxi costs and in turn give us cheaper fares. Well I guess so. I don’t know for sure, but I would assume using Hailo is cheaper than “renting” a radio and a customer base from a taxi firm. If I’m right, will these reduced costs be passed on?
I have written a few posts previously on cloud computing and how it affects costs, software and business models.
I came across a nice article in Forces which details how businesses like Instagram and Snapchat can use the cloud to grow very quickly at minimum cost. Once such businesses grow, they can acquire a large value (e.g. WhatsApp recently), without actually having much in terms of what accountants would associate with value i.e. assets.
You can read the full article here.
The term “hidden cost” is one which we are probably quite familiar – the media like to use if a lot. But what is a hidden cost? Where do these costs hide? Can we avoid them in decision-making? Too many questions to answer in a single post, but let’s start with the term itself.
If you do a google search, you will get many definitions which define hidden costs as a similar concept to opportunity costs. I disagree with such definitions as if you have identified an opportunity cost, then it is not hidden is it? Ok, perhaps I am being a bit unfair here, but to me hidden costs are those which you may not foresee when making a decision. Of course, it’s never possible to foresee all costs when making a decision, but perhaps the hidden costs might emerge if more time is given to the decision – easier said than done in a business scenario.
Take the example of a house purchase decision. This is a big decision in anyone’s life, and we normally take the time to make the right decision on location, size, internal layout, price, amount to borrow and so on. After a few years in the house we might discover we are far from schools or work, or that it is hard to heat the house – these would be hidden costs of our house purchase as we probably did not factor them into our initial decision. There’s a good chance though that we would include such things in a second house purchase decision.