Goodwill to All Pieces

Are companies properly valuing and assigning acquired intangibles to business units?

Two years ago, the Financial Accounting Standards Board seemed to hand a rare gift to companies when it eliminated the amortization of goodwill. No longer would the premium paid for acquiring a company chip away at earnings for decades — instead, it could be carried on the balance sheet as a non-wasting asset.

There was, of course, a catch: goodwill and other intangibles must be allocated to the appropriate reporting unit and tested regularly for impairment. Moreover, goodwill excludes many types of intangibles with definite lives, which still must be recognized and amortized. And any impairment charges are a straight hit to earnings.

Then there’s the cost: to ensure compliance and avoid unexpected charges, many companies are paying more for professional valuation services to value goodwill and other intangibles.

With FASB emphasizing fair value as the best measure of worth in many types of accounting transactions, valuation services are booming. And thanks to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, companies can no longer rely on their auditors to produce any valuation that they might subsequently have to audit. Hiring an outside valuation expert to perform a purchase-price allocation can cost a public company anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000, depending on the size of the deal. And the bucks don’t stop there — FAS 142 requires impairment testing at least once a year.

“FAS 142 has been good for [our valuation] business, and it will continue to be because of ongoing testing,” says George D. Shaw, Boston-based managing director of Grant Thornton Corporate Finance LLC, the accounting firm’s M&A advisory subsidiary. Typically, he says, costs come down after the first “couple of rounds” of valuation.

Old Habits Die Hard

Paying outsiders for such services isn’t required, of course, although auditors may demand it for particularly complex deals. Before FAS 141 and 142, companies either didn’t need to do valuations at all (if they used the pooling method) or often could do them without help. Those that used purchase accounting often simply lumped intangibles with goodwill. Instead of assessing a fair value for each identifiable intangible, they shortened the maximum 40-year amortization period of actual goodwill by a weighted average life to account for other intangibles. This simple residual approach wasn’t technically correct, but it was cheap and, in practice, accepted by both auditors and the Securities and Exchange Commission. “The majority of companies did this,” says Steve Gerard, Boston-based managing director of Standard & Poor’s Corporate Value Consulting unit. “It was an inexpensive way to achieve a reasonable, if not exactly rigorous, result.”

The danger today is that firms sometimes continue to use variations of that formula for back-of-the-envelope calculations early in a deal. Whether deliberate or not, overstating goodwill can make an otherwise marginally dilutive deal look accretive — until more-rigorous accounting is applied.

A purchase price that requires revision because it underestimates the amount of amortizable intangibles can put CFOs, controllers, or auditors in an awkward spot as a deal moves toward closing. In fact, valuation services quietly market their outsider status as a way to take some of the heat off of internal financial folks who don’t want to be seen as potential deal-breakers. Even then, there are cases when the conflict between FAS 141 compliance and pressure to get a deal done has boiled over. “We have encountered situations where clients were clearly ignoring the rules, and at that point, we have walked away from assignments,” says Gerard.

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