I recall reading somewhere that Warren Buffett once mentioned that he avoided companies that reported EBITDA growth, and considered it as a "useless metric". Okay, fair enough. I guess EBITDA could conceal the magnitude of factors such as interest payments, amortizations and depreciation, which could reduce overall net profit. But what I don't really understand is why a company with (supposedly) stable finances and growth, at least going by their balance and income statements, would report how well their EBITDA performed rather than their net profits after interest, taxes and amortization/depreciation expenses, which performed equally well? Or is the reporting of EBITDA just standard practice these days?
EBITDA is in my opinion not a useful measure for an investor looking to buy shares on the stock market. It is more useful for private businesses open to changing their structuring, or looking to sell significant parts of their business.
One of the main benefits of reporting Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation & Amortization, is that it presents the company as it would look to a potential buyer. Consider that net income, as a metric, includes interest costs, taxes, and depreciation.
Interest costs are (to put it simply) a result of multiplying a business's debt by its interest rate. If you own a business, and personally guarantee the loan that the company has with the bank, your interest rates might be artificially low. If you have a policy of reaching high debt levels relative to your equity, in order to achieve high 'financial leveraging', your interest cost might be artificially high. Either way, if I bought your business, my debt structure could be completely different, and therefore your interest costs are not particularly relevant to me, a potential buyer. Instead, I should attempt to anticipate what my own interest costs would be, under my plans for your business.
Taxes are a result of many factors, including the corporate structure of the business. If you run your business as a sole proprietorship (ie: no corporation), but I want to buy it under my corporation, then my tax rates could look nothing like yours. Or if we operated in multiple jurisdictions. etc. etc. Instead of using your taxes as an estimate for mine, I should anticipate my taxes based on my plans for your business.
Depreciation / amortization is a measure that estimates how much of a business's "fixed assets" were "used up" during the year. ie: how much wear and tear occurred on your fleet of trucks? It is generally calculated as a % of your overall asset value. It is a (very loose) proxy for the cash costs which will ultimately be incurred to make repairs/replacements. D&A is also something which could significantly change if a business changes hands. If the value of your building is much higher now than when you bought it, I will have higher D&A costs than you [because I will be recording a % of total costs higher than yours], and therefore I should forecast my own D&A.
Removing these costs from Net Income is not particularly relevant for a casual stock investor, because these costs will not change when you buy shares. Whatever IBM's interest cost is, reflects the debt structuring policy that the company currently has. Therefore when you buy a share in IBM, you should consider the impact that interest has on net income. Similarly for taxes and D&A — they reflect costs to the business that impact the company's ability to pay you a dividend, and therefore you should look at net income, which includes those costs.
Why would a business with 'good net income' and 'good EBITDA' report EBITDA? Because EBITDA will always be higher than net income. Why say $10M net income, when you could say $50M EBITDA? The fact is, it's easy to report, and is generally well understood — so why not report it, when it also makes you look better, from a purely "big number = good" perspective? I'm not sure that reporting EBITDA implies any sort of manipulative reporting, but it would seem that Warren Buffett feels this is a risk.