Monday, January 23, 2017

Capital Markets know the value of Intellectual Capital

Intellectual Capital of a business is defined simply, in theory, as the value of the intangible assets of the business. As far as theory goes, this definition is entirely correct. But it is in practice where this definition falls woefully short.  The latest accounting standards (read IFRS compliance) require every business to report the value of its intangible assets in its balance sheet. What gets reported however is the value of the intangible assets as is recognized under the accounting standards. And this is the reason why there remains a wide gap between the actual value of intangible assets in the 
business and what is reported in the balance sheet. IFRS accounting standards are conservative by nature and define strict criteria for what can and cannot be considered as an intangible asset in the first place. 
  • The two acid tests in this regard are 
  • The intangible asset should be identifiable

The economic benefits arising from the intangible asset should be reliably measurable
It is due to this strictness that businesses act ultra conservative when reporting the value of their intangible assets. Let’s take an example to understand this better and its impact on investor’s assessment of the business.

Union Pacific Corporation (NYSE: UNP) is the largest railroad operator in the United States. Incorporated in 1969, the company operates 8500 locomotives over more than 32,000 km of railroads employing more than 42,000 people. The company hauls commodity freight such as agricultural products, chemicals and coal as well as automotive and industrial products across the length and breadth of the United States. It competes with other railroad operators as well as road and waterways based freight haulers. The company runs its operations profitably and despite the vagaries of economic cycles, it has not reported a single quarter of loss in the past 13 years that icTracker has been tracking it. This includes that period during the 2008 crisis when every other company appeared to be going down under in a hurry. We would therefore have to assume that the company has developed a deep understanding of its Customers business over a long period of time to the extent that it can forecast demand for its freight services well ahead of time. This in turn enables it to plan availability of locomotives, freight cars, rail routes and staff ahead of time. Operations personnel know the types of train configurations that are required by different type of Customers and freight. They know the routes that will deliver the freight for their Customers in the shortest possible time. They know how to configure a freight train. They know the numbers and types of locomotives that are required for the train. They know the people who can drive such a train. They know how to manage the complex process of storing and sorting wagons in freight yards. They also know how to haul the empty wagons from their destination back to the freight yard as quickly as possible in order to minimize idling of revenue generating assets. All this and other valuable knowledge is ingrained into the operations of the company that leads it to turning a healthy profit quarter after quarter. As an investor, you would naturally expect the balance sheet of the company to reflect the value of this and other intangible assets. Would it surprise you to know therefore that in the 13 years that icTracker has been tracking Union Pacific - the company has never ever reported any intangible assets in its Balance Sheet? In other words, the company believes that it has zero Intangible assets. The balance sheet of the company would have you believe that Customers pay the company purely for renting its physical assets such as its locomotives, freight cars and rail tracks.  

But investors surely know better. The balance sheet mentions the Company’s Net Worth as approximately $20bn. An icTracker valuation of its intangible assets reveals another $23bn of Intellectual Capital, pushing its Intrinsic worth to $43bn. Yet, at the time of writing this article the capital markets are valuing Union Pacific at nearly $85bn i.e. more than four times the reported book value and nearly twice its intrinsic worth. Clearly investors seem to know a hell lot more about the value of the company’s intangible assets than what is revealed in the balance sheet – which is zero. 

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