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Focusing on data can enhance business forecasting, Houston researcher finds

A new, data-intensive technique can create a better profile of a firm and its profit forecast. Photo via Pexels

Earnings summaries are the corporate version of a Magic 8 Ball, something used to forecast future performance and profit. But Rice Business professor Brian Rountree has found that magic has its limits, and that by delving into a few additional areas of interest, investors can get a more accurate prediction of a company's future earnings than current techniques allow.

Plenty of studies analyze how to use performance summaries to calculate a firm's potential and future profits. Building on the abundant literature around this approach, Rountree, working with colleagues Andrew B. Jackson of the UNSW Australia Business School and Marlene Plumlee of the University of Utah, devised a new, additional technique for forecasting profits. By dissecting an assortment of operating details, the researchers discovered, it's possible to create a more precise forecast of a company's financial future.

Rather than replacing prior work on the subject, Rountree's team delved deeper into the significance of details within existing data. Their focus: whether including a firm's market, its overall industry and any unique activity specific to the firm makes for a more reliable profit forecast. Their conclusion: Firms can indeed improve their predictions if they separate returns on net operating assets (RNOA) into separate components and use those figures in their projections.

Normally, firms use market and industry related data to create future profit predictions. For example, a major oil company might use data on market conditions and the overall state of the oil industry to build its profits prediction. The resulting financial literature might be peppered with statements such as, "Like the rest of big oil…" or "The overall market for oil remains soft."

While this type of data is typically used to make projections, Rountree and his colleagues used the market and industry information more formally by creating the equivalent of stock return betas — a statistical measure of risk — for corporate earnings. In addition, they allowed for adding firm-specific information to market and industry information to help forecast earnings.

To conduct their study, Rountree's team used Compustat quarterly data to calculate firm, industry and market RNOAs from 1976 to 2014. Next, they broke these figures down and separated the results into different categories.

Their resulting formula differs from the conventional approach because it doesn't rely on one average set of market and industry-related data for each firm. Instead, it assumes varying factors for each company. The devil is in these details: Calculating specific market, industry and firm-idiosyncratic components improves the chances of forecasting profits correctly.

Correctly breaking down and separating profitability details to plug into the new formula is no small task. Separating company data into just three components requires up to 20 quarters of figures about prior profitability.

Once the information is processed, a researcher must then be vigilant for "noise" — incidental, irrelevant data that can lead to errors. Finally, Rountree warns, the breakdown process may not work as well for forecasting bankruptcy as it does for profits.

Used correctly, however, the technique is a practical new tool. By breaking down profitability into market, industry and firm-specific idiosyncrasies, researchers can improve forecasts strikingly compared to conventional calculations of total RNOAs.

The most accurate profit forecasts in other words, demand more than just a figurative shake of an industry Magic 8 Ball. To find the most reliable information about future earnings, a company instead has to flawlessly juggle years' worth of specific details about their particular firm. But the reward of planning based on a correct forecast can pay for itself.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. It's based on research by Brian Rountree, an associate professor of accounting at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

Panelists from the University of Houston and Houston Methodist discussed tech transfer challenges and opportunities for academic innovators. Photo courtesy

Groundbreaking and disruptive innovations across industries are coming out of research institutions, and their commercialization process is very different from other startups.

An expert panel within Technology transfer discussed some of the unique obstacles innovators face as they go from academia into the market — like patenting, funding, the valley of death, and more.

Missed the conversation? Here are eight key moments from the panel that took place at the University of Houston's Technology Bridge on Wednesday, May 19.

This event was hosted by InnovationMap and University of Houston.

“If your technology can immediately impact some industry, I think you should license out your technology. But if you think that the reward is much higher and does not yet match something in the industry, you should go the high risk, high reward path of doing it yourself. That’s a much more challenging. It takes years of work.”

— Hadi Ghasemi, co-founder of Elemental Coatings and Cullen associate professor in the department of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, says on how tech transfer usually happens via those two pathways. Ghasemi explains that it also depends on the academic's passion for the product and interest in becoming an entrepreneur.

“There’s a mismatch in that you can have a really clinically impactful technology but still not have money to develop it into a product.” 

— Rashim Singh, co-founder of Sanarentero and a research assistant professor of pharmaceutics at the University of Houston College of Pharmacy, says on the different priorities from within academia and within the market.

“What I’ve seen is if you know you want to patent something, tell the right people early. Make sure you have the right players involved. Our tech office already has venture, Pharma, etc. partners that can help with the patent process.”

— Ginny Torno, administrative director of innovation and IT clinical systems at Houston Methodist

“You don’t need to be fully transparent about your technology. As a company, you need to have some secret sauce."

— Ghasemi says on the patent and paper publishing process. Academics are used to publishing their research, but when it comes to business, you need to hold some things close to the chest.

“One of the most important piece the UH Tech Bridge has provided is the wet lab space to develop these technologies a little further toward commercialization. … Wet lab is very precious space in Houston specifically because there isn’t much here.”

— Singh says on how important access to lab space is to the entrepreneur.

"“You’re starting to see more and more organizations that have innovation arms. ... There are a lot of focus on trying to make Houston another innovation hub, and I think there is more support now than even a few years ago.”

— Torno says on what's changed over the past few years, mentioning TMC3 and the Ion.

“Try to serve private capital as soon as possible. The grant money comes, and those are good and will help you prove out your technology. But once you have private money, it shows people care about your product.”

— Ghasemi says as a piece of advice for potential tech transfer entrepreneurs.

“The biggest gap is to arrange for funding — federal, private, etc. — to support during the valley of death.”

— Singh says on the struggle research-based startups, especially in drug discovery, faces as they fight to prove out their product and try to stay afloat financially.

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