Monday, March 11, 2013

Goodwill -- here today gone tomorrow?

Goodwill is a big number on the balance sheets of many technology companies. Google has $10.5B of goodwill, Microsoft 14.7B, Cisco $17.0B, and Hewlett Packard $30.9B.

How does this asset arise? Contrary to how it sounds, goodwill is not booked as a result of strong brands, excellent customer relations or talented management admired by shareholders. As much as a business might like to claim its "favor" with customers or other stakeholders as a asset, it can't be done.

Goodwill results from acquisitions and acquisitions only. Goodwill arises when an acquirer pays more than the fair market value of acquired net identifiable assets. For example when Google bought YouTube in 2006 it allocated over $1.1B to goodwill, far more than the $.1B allocated to trademarks and customer contracts.

For a number of technology companies goodwill is much larger than other major balance sheet items such as property, plant and equipment (PP&E). Cisco's goodwill it currently about 500% of its PP&E; HP's is 265%; Microsoft's is 169%.

For other tech companies, goodwill is a relatively minor asset. For low-acquisitive Apple, goodwill is only 9% of PP&E. And Samsung's goodwill is less than 1% of its PP&E.

Goodwill must be tested for impairment at least once/year, and impairment charges reduce operating income. For example, last November HP announced it was taking a $5B goodwill impairment charge related to its Autonomy acquisition. And last July, Microsoft announced its was taking a $6.2B charge to write down goodwill relating its aQuantive online-advertising acquisition.

Google, although extremely acquisitive, has never taken a charge for goodwill impairment. This hardly means that all Google acquisitions have been successful. Goodwill impairment is typically analyzed at the operating segment level, and success can continue to occur within a segment even if some deals within that segment have failed.