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Revenue Recognition

Five Methods Management Can Use to Smooth Earnings on the Income Statement


Revenue Recognition Methods

There are many different revenue recognition methods that management might employ on the income statement, all of which you, as a stockholder or bondholder, need to know.

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As part of our guide to financial statements, you learned that the accrual concept - matching revenues with expenses - was the cornerstone of accounting. Only by comparing cash with the cost of generating it can the investor develop an understanding of the profitability of a business. Yet, within Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), there are multiple ways to recognize revenue. Depending upon which method is chosen, the financial statements may look drastically different even though economic reality is the same.

Two Tests for Revenue Recognition

For revenue to be recognized, there are two key conditions that must be met according to SFAC 5, Recognition and Measurement in Financial Statements of Business Enterprises. They are:
  1. Completion of the earnings process
    Under this test, the seller must have no significant remaining obligation to the customer. If an order for five hundred football helmets has been placed and only two hundred delivered, the transaction is not complete. Likewise, if the seller is the manufacturer of appliances and promises extensive warranty coverage, it should not book the sale as revenue unless the cost of providing that service (i.e., warranty repair labor and parts) can be reasonably estimated. Additionally, a company that sells a product with an unconditional return policy cannot book the sale until the window has expired (e.g., a company that promises unrestricted returns for cash until ninety days after the sale should not record the revenue until that period has elapsed.)
  2. Assurance of payment
    In order to book revenue, the selling company must be able to reasonably estimate the probability that it will be paid for the order.

Revenue Recognition Method 1: Sales Basis

This is the method that probably makes the most sense to investors. Under the sales basis method, revenue is recognized at the time of sale (defined as the moment when the title of the goods or services is transferred to the buyer.) The sale can be for cash or credit (i.e., accounts receivable.) This means that revenue is not recognized even if cash is received before the transaction is complete. A magazine publisher, for example, that receives $120 a year for an annual subscription, will only recognize $10 of revenue every month. The reason is simple: if they went out of business, they would have to return a pro-rated portion of the annual subscription price to the customer since it had not yet delivered the merchandise for which it had been paid.

Revenue Recognition Method 2: Percentage of Completion

Companies that build bridges or aircraft take years to deliver the product to the customer. In this case, the company responsible for building the product wants to be able to show its shareholders that it is generating revenue and profits even though the project itself is not yet complete. As a result, it will use the percentage of completion method for revenue recognition if two conditions are met: 1.) there is a long-term legally enforceable contract and 2.) it is possible to estimate the percentage of the project complete, revenues and costs.

Under this method, there are two ways revenue recognition can occur:

  1. Using milestones such as number of railway track complete
    A construction company is paid $100,000 to build fifty miles of highway. For every mile the company completes, it is going to recognize $2,000 in revenue on its income statement ($100,000 / 50 miles = $2,000 per mile.)
  2. Cost incurred to estimated total cost
    Using this metric, the construction company would approach revenue recognition by comparing the cost incurred to-date by the estimated total cost. For example: The business expects the same $100,000 of highway to cost it $80,000 in parts, material, labor, etc. At the end of the first month, it has spent $5,000 working on the project. $5,000 is 6.25% of $80,000; therefore, it would multiply the total revenue ($100,000) by the percentage of the cost incurred (6.25%), or $6,250, and recognize this amount as revenue on its income statement.

    One caveat: if you find yourself reading through the 10K of a company that is utilizing the percentage of completion revenue recognition method, you may want to watch out for premature booking of expenses such as the purchase of raw goods. Until the goods have actually been used in the production cycle (e.g., pouring the actual concrete on the job site, not purchasing the concrete at Home Depot), the cost should not be counted. A business that does not make this distinction is prone to overstate revenue, gross profit, and net income for the period as a result.

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