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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

 
 

5G could be taking over Texas — and Houston is leading the way. Photo via Getty Images

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

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