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 Heard on the Street

 Questionable Accounting Rule

 Draws Scrutiny From Analysts

 

 By ELIZABETH MACDONALD

 Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

 

 Investors in stocks of high-tech and pharmaceutical

 companies, beware: A study warns that a growing number of

 the companies are using an obscure accounting rule that

 some critics say can inflate subsequent earnings

 artificially.

 

 The authors of the report say that 3Com, Novell and Exar

 have already benefited from the rule. While all three

 companies acknowledge using the bookkeeping method, they

 say it is mandated by accounting rules, and hasn't

 distorted their profits.

 

 ------------------------------------------------------------

 

 Charged-Up Earnings

 

 Here's how accounting expert Baruch Lev of New York

 University says acquisition charges for "in process"

 research and development can pump-up subsequent high-tech

 earnings. The companies defend their accounting as proper.

 

         Cost of      Size ofTime         Fiscal   FY '96

         Acquisitions ChargesPeriod of    1996     Net

                             Acquisitions Earnings Without

                                                   Immediate

                                                   Charges*

  3Com   $220.0       $192.9 1/94-10/94   $177.9   $144.8

  Novell 529.7        425.9  6/93-6/94    126.0    19.5

  Exar   24.1         16.9   5/94-6/94    13.6     10.4

 

 Dollar figures are in millions

 

 *Assumes four-year write-off of R&D costs starting at least

 four quarters after acquisition, instead of immediate

 write-off.

 

 ------------------------------------------------------------

 

 The March 1997 study by Baruch Lev, an accounting and

 finance professor at New York University, and Zhen Deng, an

 NYU graduate student in accounting, found an increasing

 number of companies using the 22-year-old rule.

 

 The rule in question lets an acquiring company set a value

 for the "in-process" research and development assets at an

 acquired company, and immediately write off that amount.

 The higher the value, the more acquirers can avoid hits to

 future earnings from goodwill. That's because any goodwill

 -- the premium of the purchase price over the acquired

 company's book value -- is supposed to be deducted from the

 acquirer's profits over periods as long as 40 years.

 

 Jack Ciesielski, editor of the Analyst's Accounting

 Observer, a Baltimore publication for stock analysts,

 warns, "Investors should be careful of subsequent earnings

 posted by acquirers using this rule, because they are a bit

 jazzed."

 

 Gabrielle Napolitano, a securities analyst who follows

 accounting issues at Goldman Sachs, holds a similar

 opinion: "Acquiring companies may be assigning too high a

 value to this in-process R&D, distorting subsequent

 earnings."

 

 The practice is on the rise. The study says that only three

 companies wrote off part of their acquisitions as

 "in-process" R&D during the 1980s. But 389 have done so in

 the 1990s, a record 156 last year alone. Nearly 40% of the

 acquisitions occurred at computer-software and equipment

 companies, the rest at pharmaceutical and biotech concerns.

 

 To be sure, companies must take such write-offs to comply

 with accounting standards. "The companies are not doing

 anything wrong," says Mr. Lev. "But what is wrong is the

 accounting system that allows these immediate write-offs."

 The authors say investors should watch out for euphemisms

 for this acquired R&D, such as "incomplete technology,"

 "in-process engineering and development," or "acquired

 technology rights."

 

 A computer search by Mr. Lev and Ms. Deng found 392

 acquisitions using such a write-off between 1980 to 1996.

 The average R&D write-off was a whopping 72% of the entire

 purchase price. The size of the write-offs, the authors

 say, caused more than 75% of companies in the sample to

 post a loss for that quarter.

 

 After that, the authors calculate, the write-offs gave a

 temporary 22% kick on average to the acquiring companies'

 earnings in the fourth quarter after the acquisitions.

 Reason: If they hadn't taken the immediate write-offs for

 the R&D, the acquirers would have had to count the R&D

 costs as expenses over four years -- which Mr. Lev

 estimates is about the average life of R&D software --

 which would have reduced their earnings over that period.

 "Managers love this write-off because it inflates future

 earnings," says Mr. Lev.

 

 Moreover, the authors estimate the write-offs temporarily

 overstated the acquiring companies' return on equity by an

 average 37% in the year after the write-off. That can put a

 smile on the faces of corporate executives, because return

 on equity is a yardstick used by compensation committees to

 set executive pay, according to William M. Mercer Inc., a

 New York compensation consulting firm.

 

 The impact on earnings can be substantial.

 

 In 1994, 3Com, Santa Clara, Calif., wrote off $192.9

 million, or 88% of its total $220 million acquisition price

 for four companies, including Synernetics and Nice Com. Mr.

 Lev estimates that by the fiscal year ended May 1996,

 3Com's write-offs had boosted its annual earnings by 23%

 over the level that would have been reported if the

 acquired R&D had been written off over four years.

 

 Alan Groves, 3Com's corporate controller, said Mr. Lev used

 "highly fallacious" assumptions, and that 3Com's accounting

 was "conservative." But he wouldn't elaborate.

 

 Another case in point: Novell of Provo, Utah. Between June

 1993 and 1994, this maker of network software wrote off as

 "in-process" research and development $425.9 million, or

 80% of its total $529.7 million price tag for four

 acquisitions -- Unix Systems Lab, Serius, Fluent and

 Borland International's Quattro Pro, a spreadsheet program.

 Novell eventually sold much of Unix's software line and

 Quattro Pro.

 

 Mr. Lev says that if Novell had written off the R&D

 expenses over four years, its net income would have been

 $19.5 million in the year ended October 1996, less than

 one-sixth of the $126 million it actually reported.

 Novell's director of investor relations, Peter Troop, says,

 "Novell accounted for its acquisitions as required by

 generally accepted accounting principles."

 

 Exar also wrote off $16.9 million in acquired R&D for two

 companies it bought between May 1994 and June 1994. By the

 end of the fiscal year ended in March 1996, this Fremont,

 Calif., telecommunications company reported $13.6 million

 in net income. But Mr. Lev says if it had written the R&D

 off over four years, its net would have been $10.4 million.

 So the R&D charges boosted net by 31%. Ron Guire, chief

 financial officer of Exar, remarks, "It's a nice study for

 a college, but in practice I think it's crazy."

 

 Mr. Ciesielski says the sheer size of some of the R&D

 write-downs indicates that some acquiring companies are

 abusing the rules by including too much goodwill. But most

 companies don't release the details of the calculations

 they use to arrive at the write-down amounts. Companies

 wouldn't have to worry about the size of their goodwill

 write-downs if they used "pooling-of-interest" accounting;

 but companies that use that method for an acquisition can't

 quickly dispose of unwanted assets.

 

 So far, both the Financial Accounting Standards Board, the

 chief accounting rulemaking body, and the Securities and

 Exchange Commission say they are looking into the

 controversy. But little action has been taken to date.

 

 Determining whether R&D write-offs were appropriate in

 hindsight is complicated by the fact that, as Bear Stearns

 accounting expert Pat McConnell notes, "no reliable data on

 R&D cash flows postacquisition exist because such revenue

 is typically commingled with a firm's other earnings."

 

 Adds Mr. Ciesielski: "If these write-offs are in fact all

 R&D, the companies should be generating phenomenal revenues

 and new products -- but are they?"

 

                             * * *

 

 BUFFETT AT THE BAT: At the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. annual

 meeting Monday, billionaire investor and Salomon Inc.

 stockholder Warren Buffett said the "odds are overwhelming"

 that he'll convert some of his Salomon preferred-stock

 holdings into the common stock of the securities firm this

 year, rather than cash out.

 

 In 1995, in what was seen as a no-confidence vote for

 Salomon's management, Mr. Buffett chose to take cash for

 some of his preferred stock, but, last year, Mr. Buffett

 decided to convert a $140 million chunk of preferred into

 Salomon common stock. Mr. Buffett can convert his preferred

 stock into common shares at $38 apiece, well below

 Salomon's current price of $52.625.

 

 When asked about his plans, Mr. Buffett at first hedged a

 bit, saying, "We see no reason to swing at the ball when

 it's still in the pitcher's glove." Mr. Buffett doesn't

 have to decide whether to convert or not this year until

 the fall.

 

 -- Anita Raghavan

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