When reading reports, read the footnotes!

It’s not natural for most people to pay close attention to the small fine print in the footnotes. When I was at school, nobody told me about it. But in some cases, what the footnotes contain is very valuable and can change the information that goes before it. In this post, I’ll give you an example of how a $27 billion publicly traded company (Synchrony Bank) manipulates numbers to their advantage and how paying attention to the footnotes can help you jump through that manipulation.

Per Synchrony’s Investor Day Presentation

Synchrony shows their acquisition cost and customer lifetime value of their co-branded credit card portfolio

The point of the upper slide is that Synchrony Bank is more efficient than its peers in acquiring new and more valuable accounts. Well, there are some caveats. First, it may well be true that it costs Synchrony less to acquire new co-branded accounts. They partner with some of the most popular brands such as Amazon or PayPal. They don’t need to send out a lot of direct mails or run plenty of digital ads. However, I strongly suspect that they will have to pay these brands a high finders fee as in every time an account is opened, the brands receive a fee. In these cases, I won’t be surprised if the fee is north $100. Technically speaking, the finder fee isn’t classified as an acquisition expense, but to ordinary audience who doesn’t work in banking, the net financial impact isn’t clear from this presentation.

Second, the comparison data is from Argus. Argus collects data from different issuers in the country and shares back to each participant its benchmark’s data. It can be a very useful tool as management teams. The main drawbacks of Argus are 1/ as the identity of the participating issuers is kept anonymous, one doesn’t really know exactly who they are compared against; 2/ Argus data is on a quarterly basis and usually lags behind by 90 days. In other words, since we are not wrapping up Q3 2021 yet, the most up-to-date data in Argus should be for Q1 2021, but I know from personal experience that as of this writing, benchmark data is only up to Q4 2020. My point is that it’s unclear from the presentation that Synchrony is comparing data from the same period.

Last but not least, the way they calculate Customer Lifetime Value is a bit flattering. The footnote, if I interpret it correctly, states that they look at the CLTV of accounts that are on the books for 10 years. In the credit card world, if a customer stays with you for a long time, usually it means that customer is more valuable than shorter-tenured ones. Hence, it seems Synchrony looks at the CLTV of only some of their best customers, instead of the general population of their co-branded cards.

I’ll give you another example of the importance of footnotes. From the same presentation by Synchrony:

Synchrony tries to show how they manage risk

The point that Synchrony is trying to make here is that they grow their portfolio responsibly by curtailing the riskier customer group (subprime, which include the Low and Medium). The confusion comes from how Subprime is defined. In their explanation, Synchrony considers anybody with VantageScore less than 650 to be Subprime. According to The Balance, Vantage Score 3.0 and 4.0 use the same tiers as FICO score and Subprime refers to people with less than 600 in Vantage Score. To the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Subprime includes anyone with less than 620 in credit score. To Experian, the threshold is 670. The lack of a universal definition of Subprime means that Synchrony is likely not trying to manipulate the audience in this particular case. Rather, if somebody wants to use this information, they should really need to look at how Synchrony defines Subprime. Otherwise, any comparison would be flawed.

These are just two small examples of how critical information is sometimes buried in the footnotes. There are plenty of other examples. Everyone that publishes something has an agenda and employs tactics to highlight such an agenda and tuck away what can seed doubt. We should strive to be vigilant and mindful while reading others’ reports.

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