Boing Boing contributor Cory Doctorow posted yesterday that the ways US companies choose to express their earnings has hidden an alarming decline in real profitability over the past 43 years. The source is the Deloitte Center for the Edge (via Jon Taplin's blog). A telling chart from the Deloitte report is reproduced above.

The Deloitte report is long on technical details about trends in worker productivity, mergers and acquisitions, rates of corporate taxation, and other macro trends in the US economy, but Taplin's point is about the differences between profitability considered as a return on assets (ROA) and profitability expressed as a return on equity (ROE). Quoting Investopedia, Taplin describes ROE as the classic Wall Street measure of profitability. Basically, it's the ratio of net income to shareholders equity:

Let's calculate ROE for the automotive giant General Motors for 2003. To get the necessary data, go to the GM's Investor Information website and look for theROA, on the other hand is the ratio of net profits to all the assets the company owns -- factories, machinery, office furniture, money in the bank, etc.2003 Annual Report. You'll see on GM's2003 Income Statementthat its net income totaled $3.822 billion. On GM's2003 Balance Sheet, you'll find total stockholder equity for 2003 was $25.268bn and in 2002 it was $6.814bn.

To calculate ROE, average shareholders' equity for 2003 and 2002 ($25.268bn + $6.814bn / 2 = $16.041 bn), and divide net income for 2003 ($3.822bn) by that average. You will arrive at a return on equity of 0.23, or 23%. This tells us that in 2003 GM generated a 23% profit on every dollar invested by shareholders.

Many professional investors look for a ROE of at least 15%. So, by that standard alone, GM managements' ability to squeeze profits from shareholders' money appears rather impressive.

Now, let's turn to return on assets, which, offering a different take on management's effectiveness, reveals how much profit a company earns for every dollar of its assets. Assets include things like cash in the bank, accounts receivable, property, equipment, inventory and furniture. ROA is calculated like this:(Block quotes from Investopedia.)Return on Assets = (Annual Net Income/Total Assets)Let's look at GM again. You already know that it earned $3.822bn in 2003, and you can find total assets on the balance sheet. In 2003, GM's total assets amounted to $448.507bn. GM's net income divided by total assets gives a return on assets of 0.0085, or 0.85%. This tells us that in 2003 GM earned less than 1% profit on the resources it owned.

This is an extremely low number. In other words, GM's ROA tells a very different story about the company's performance than its ROE. Few professional money managers will consider stocks with an ROA of less than 5%.

The difference is debt. In GM's case, large debt obligations reduced the equity value of the company and so made the profit numbers look quite good when expressed as a percentage of equity.

The chart above is an examination of all US companies' profitability expressed as a percentage of assets over the past 43 years, and it's a horrible picture indeed. Talk about a crisis in capitalism.

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