Coca-Cola Co. said today that it will no longer provide quarterly or annual earnings estimates because the projections divert investor attention from the beverage company's more important long-term business initiatives.
Some financial observers said the fact that such a well-known company was making the move could lead other firms to follow suit. Coke was also one of the first big companies to announce that it would treat stock options granted to employees as an expense against earnings.
"We believe that establishing short-term guidance prevents a more meaningful focus on the strategic initiatives that a company is taking to build its business and succeed over the long run," Coke chairman and chief executive Douglas N. Daft said today.
Companies generally offer annual and quarterly guidance on what they expect to earn per share so investors can assess their holdings. In recent years, investors have focused keenly on whether a company meets earnings targets set by Wall Street analysts. Failure to meet or exceed these estimates often leads to a major sell-off of a company's stock. In response, firms have felt compelled to issue their own guidance in an effort to manage expectations. But some corporate governance experts and business leaders, notably Berkshire Hathaway Inc. chief executive Warren Buffett, a Coca-Cola board member, argue that an excessive corporate and media focus on quarterly earnings figures leads executives to manage for the short term, ultimately a disservice to investors. These people often say such a short-term focus during the recent market boom led executives at companies such as Enron Corp. to employ fraudulent accounting tactics to meet earnings targets.
"We are quite comfortable measuring our progress as we achieve it, instead of focusing on the establishment and attainment of public forecasts," Daft said. "Our share owners are best served by this because we should not run our business based on short-term expectations." Henry T.C. Hu, a professor of corporate and securities law at the University of Texas at Austin, said moving away from earnings estimates is the right idea. "There is far too much emphasis placed on earnings per share as a metric, particularly quarter by quarter," he said, adding that the earnings per share figure does not take into account a company's use of capital resources, something he described as "absolutely fundamental to understanding whether a corporation is doing well or not."
Coke spokeswoman Kari Bjorhus said Buffett weighed in on the issue but it was ultimately a decision made by all of Coke's directors. She said the company does not necessarily view itself as a pioneer on the issue. "I don't know what other companies' practices are, but I know we are not the first," she said, citing Gillette Co., which stopped offering guidance last year. Berkshire Hathaway owns more than 9 percent of Gillette's shares, according to data from Bloomberg.
Buffett is also a major shareholder and a director of The Washington Post Co, which does not offer earnings guidance. Buffett was traveling today and could not be reached for comment.
Jeffrey L. Evans, president of the board of the New York Society of Security Analysts, said Coke's move would probably spark a trend. "With Coke in the lead I expect others will shortly start making similar announcements," he said.
"This is all in keeping with the drive to assure analyst objectivity, and I think it will tend to mean a little more dispersion in terms of analysts' forecasts of future earnings," Evans said. "People will have to do more of their own homework and won't be able to back into a number provided by a company."