Learn the lingo

Mastering finance means perfecting the patois, writes Phil Young.

To get behind the numbers, you must get past the acronyms. A few months ago, US multinational General Electric (GE) announced that it was selling its Industry Solutions (IS) business to ABB for $2.6 billion. IS makes all kinds of electrical equipment. The deal is expected to close sometime early next year. Last year’s revenue for this segment of GE’s total sales is quite small, $2.7 billion out of a top line totalling $110.8 billion. But it does represent a relatively larger part of ABB’s turnover last year of $33.8 billion. So this acquisition will represent a noticeable upward nudge to its top line. But how about its bottom line? Is IS a profitable business? If so, why would GE want to sell it? If not, why would ABB want to buy it? The official press release on this deal cites IS’s EBITDA and EBITA margins to be about 8% and 6% respectively. Are these margins high or low? Are they good or bad?

At this point, I dare say that readers with a financial background will have a good idea of how to answer these questions. Understandably, those less familiar with finance might not. I’m guessing that one reason is because financial professionals often use different terms for the same concept. They also use a lot of acronyms. In the opening paragraph, I deliberately used other ways besides ‘revenue’ in reference to the monetary value of a company’s sale of its products and services.

EBITDA and EBITA are good examples of the common practice of using acronyms rather than the actual name of a financial term. EBITDA stands for earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization; and EBITA stands for earnings before interest, taxes and amortization. EBITDA and EBITA are variations of EBIT, or earnings before (subtracting) interest and taxes. In other words, EBIT is operating profit. Simply put, EBITDA and EBITA margins measure the profitability of the operations of a business in a way that is closer to its actual cash flow because the non-cash items – depreciation and amortization – are not subtracted from revenue when computing operating profit.

A simple numerical illustration should suffice. Suppose revenue is 100, and cost and expenses are 95. Operating profit or EBIT would then be five and the EBIT margin would be 5% (5/100). But suppose further that depreciation makes up two and amortization one of the company’s total cost and expenses. By not subtracting these items, we would have an EBITDA margin of 8% and an EBITA margin of 6%. I assume that financial analysts would generally agree that these figures are relatively low for a business that makes things, particularly when compared to the higher margin products that both GE and ABB make. In fact, some analysts are wondering if ABB might be paying too much for this particular asset.

For GE, this deal looks like a good one. It will be shedding a lower-margin part of its business as it seeks to focus on the higher margins in its other businesses (e.g. jet engines and medical equipment), while also building up what promises to be the next big thing in technology: the internet of things (IoT). The fact that ABB agreed to pay $2.6 billion must mean that it believes it will benefit from various synergies. Indeed, that is what ABB’s chief executive said in a presentation to analysts.

I’m sure all Dialogue readers would know what GE stands for. But how many, particularly those in North America, would know what ABB stands for, let alone what it makes? I happen to have done corporate education work for ABB in years past. (Besides electrical products such as circuit breakers and transformers, it is one of the world’s leading manufactures of industrial robots.)

For a consultant, a small but important part of understanding what a client company does is the mastery of its frequently used acronyms. ABB uses quite a few. I once told the managers in one of my seminars that it is sometimes confusing to understand what they do and their key business problems, because they use so many acronyms. One manager in the class responded by asking me, “Don’t you know what ABB stands for?” I quickly replied with great confidence “Asea Brown Boveri…” “No,” he quipped, “it stands for Acronyms Beyond Belief.”

– Phil Young PhD is an MBA professor and corporate education consultant and instructor