Minority Interest on the Balance Sheet

Analyzing a Balance Sheet

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When investors analyze a company's balance sheet, one item that warrants closer inspection is called minority interest. The minority interest section refers to the equity that minority shareholders hold in a company's subsidiaries, which you'll often see when looking at holding companies

Put another way, minority interest represents the minority stockholders' share of the assets and liabilities of a subsidiary. A subsidiary is designated as one company controlled by another company, often called the parent, through ownership of a majority of the voting stock. This means that the parent company must own 50% or more of the subsidiary's voting stock.

Reporting Minority Interest

Beginning in the years 2008 and 2009, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) introduced a significant change to how minority interest was classified on the balance sheet. Companies were required to list their minority interest information under the shareholders' equity section, instead of the liabilities section where it had previously found its home. 

This major shift in accounting policy means that for annual reports and Form 10-K filings after this date, you'll need to look further down the balance sheet to the equity section to find the minority interest details. It also means you'll need to be aware of this inconsistency when studying or analyzing balance sheets contained in older annual reports, as the company's minority interest section will appear as a type of debt in the liabilities section.

The old thinking about minority interest was that it represented a financial liability that was owed to the minority stockholders. The new thinking is that the minority stockholders aren't owed anything; they own their sliver of the company, so it is appropriate to label this as an equity allocation. Some believe the move to the equity section is a more accurate presentation of economic reality.

How Minority Interest Works

The following real-world example demonstrates the workings of minority interest. Berkshire Hathaway is perhaps the most famous holding company in the United States, if not the world. This investment vehicle of billionaire Warren Buffett has made minority interest a key strategic weapon in its never-ending quest for intelligent acquisitions. 

Buffett's strategy involves finding an attractive business, often family-owned or controlled by a handful of people, and offering to acquire a majority ownership percentage of the stock. The majority stake is important because the current corporate tax rules in the United States mean that the acquired business can be treated as a fully-consolidated subsidiary and the parent holding company may not have to pay taxes on dividends from that subsidiary. 

Once Berkshire Hathaway completes its acquisition of a majority ownership stake in a target company's stock, any remaining minority stake in the hands of the noncontrolling stockholders has to be reflected in Berkshire Hathaway's financial statements. That is where minority interest comes into play.

Example: Minority Interest in Nebraska Furniture Mart on Berkshire Hathaway's Balance Sheet

In 1983, Nebraska Furniture Mart (NFM) in Omaha, Nebraska, was the most successful home furnishings store in the United States. Its gross annual sales exceeded $100 million and the company had no debt. After noticing how successful the furniture business was, fellow Omaha native Warren Buffett approached the owner, Rose Blumkin, and offered to buy the company from her.

The sale transaction would allow Blumkin to remain in charge of the business she loved, continue to hold a meaningful stake and raise a large amount of cash for estate planning purposes. Almost immediately, she offered to sell 90% of the privately held Nebraska Furniture Mart stock to Berkshire Hathaway for $55 million.

This made NFM a partially-owned subsidiary of Berkshire. Since subsidiaries are controlled by their parent companies, accounting rules allow them to be carried on the parent company's balance sheet. 1 When Berkshire Hathaway bought its 90% stake in Nebraska Furniture Mart, it was able to add the assets and liabilities of the furniture giant to its own balance sheet.

This accounting treatment presented a problem. Berkshire Hathaway could now consolidate Nebraska Furniture Mart's balance sheet with its own balance sheet, but, technically, it didn't own all of Nebraska Furniture Mart. Remember, Rose Blumkin sold 90% of her company, but she still retained the other 10%. That means that 10% of the ​current assets, the inventory, and the property, plant, and equipment, and other assets belonged to her.

To adjust Berkshire's balance sheet to reflect this, Berkshire Hathaway had to calculate Rose's 10% share of everything and report it under the minority interest section of their balance sheet. Since this was before the 2008 and 2009 accounting rule changes, back then, minority interest was shown as a liability (debt) on Berkshire Hathaway's balance sheet. 

Today, if you look at Berkshire Hathaway's balance sheet, among its many minority interests shown under the shareholder equity section are the shares of Nebraska Furniture Mart owned by Rose Blumkin's heirs. These days, Berkshire Hathaway owns 80% of Nebraska Furniture Mart and the Blumkin family owns 20% following the latter's decision to exercise an option to repurchase 10% of the company on top of the 10% they originally retained at the time of the acquisition.

Calculating Minority Interest for Different Subsidiaries

When looking at the minority interest section of a firm's balance sheet, it is unlikely management will offer detail on the specific firms in which minority interest is held. For that, you will need to investigate the legal structure of the parent business and find out exactly how much it owns of each subsidiary, then do some calculations to allocate the assets and liabilities based on ownership percentages. 

1.) A company can integrate the balance sheet of its subsidiary if it owns 50.1% or more. It can report earnings of the subsidiary if it owns 20% or more.