Intangible Assets on the Balance Sheet
Companies almost always end up owning assets of value that cannot be touched, felt, or seen. These intangible assets, as they are called, consist of patents, trademarks, brand names, franchises, and economic goodwill, which is different than accounting goodwill.
Economic goodwill, which is frequently referred to as franchise value these days, consists of the intangible advantages a company has over its competitors such as an excellent reputation, strategic location, business connections, etc. While every effort should be made for businesses to carry these intangible assets at costs on the balance sheet, they are sometimes given what amounts to near arbitrarily meaningless values.
To prove the point that the intangible value assigned on the balance sheet can be deceptive, here's an excerpt from Michael F. Price's introduction to Benjamin Graham's "The Interpretation of Financial Statements,"
"In the spring of 1975, shortly after I began my career at Mutual Shares Fund, Max Heine asked me to look at a small brewery - the F&M Schaefer Brewing Company. I'll never forget looking at the balance sheet and seeing a +/- $40 million net worth and $40 million in 'intangibles'. I said to Max, 'It looks cheap. It's trading for well below its net worth.... A classic value stock!' Max said, 'Look closer.'
I looked in the notes and at the financial statements, but they didn't reveal where the intangibles figure came from. I called Schaefer's treasurer and said, 'I'm looking at your balance sheet. Tell me, what does the $40 million of intangibles relate to?' He replied, 'Don't you know our jingle, 'Schaefer is the one beer to have when you're having more than one.'?'
That was my first analysis of an intangible asset which, of course, was way overstated, increased book value, and showed higher earnings than were warranted in 1975. All this to keep Schaefer's stock price higher than it otherwise would have been. We didn't buy it."
Analyzing a Balance Sheet
When analyzing a balance sheet, you should generally ignore the amount assigned to intangible assets or, at the very least, take it with more than a grain of salt. These intangible assets may be worth a huge amount in real life but the recorded accounting value probably doesn't approximate it to any degree of meaningful accuracy.
Consider The Coca-Cola Company. Although it only has around $12.6 billion in net property, plant, and equipment on its balance sheet as of the end of the third quarter 2015 (the official full-year 2015 figures have not, yet, been released), if the whole firm went up in smoke tomorrow, it would easily take $100+ billion to replicate its existing infrastructure, facilities, and distribution network; the difference of which shows up nowhere on the balance sheet.
At the same time, the firm carries more than $13 billion in intangible assets on the books. That $13 billion includes things like the Coca-Cola brand name and logo, which are undoubtedly very, very valuable. If you woke up the next day without a single asset to your name except for that trademark, you'd instantly be a billionaire because investors would want to buy it or license it from you as it will lead to exponentially higher beverage sales thanks to more than a century of brand equity building through marketing, positive experiences, and positive associations.
The Importance of Intangible Assets
For some firms, intangible assets are the engine behind the business. A perfect illustration: The Walt Disney Company. Nobody else can legally manufacture and sell the thousands of original characters and stories it owns; a right that entitles it to open theme parks built around them, sell merchandise such as lunch boxes and coffee mugs, put on live concerts and release albums. Disney carries shy of $7.2 billion on its balance sheet for intangible assets, though it's certainly worth more.
How, then, should a person estimate the value of intangible assets? For a private investor acquiring shares in a firm that he or she does not control, such as picking up blue-chip stock, Benjamin Graham argued along the lines that to be of any use, the real value of the intangible assets must show up in the superior performance figures of the income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statement. Otherwise they aren't worth much at all and by treating the intangible asset as another source of value rather than focusing on the cash flows it produced the analyst is, in fact, "double counting" the benefit.
Graham's most famous student, billionaire investor Warren Buffett, later went on to take a slightly different approach, insisting that, sometimes, the value of the brand was sufficient in that you could qualitatively know declines in revenue were far less likely during periods of economic stress, therefore making it wise for the investor to pay a higher, close-to-fair value price for the enterprise rather than seeking a discount.
In other words, you may not, precisely, know the true value of Disney or Coke's intangible assets but if either firm is trading at fair value or lower, and you have a long-term ownership period of 5, 10, 25+ years, it might be better to buy it knowing that the intangible assets are a sort of additional margin of safety.