Is Annual Guidance a Reasonable Expectation for Investors?

Regular readers of this blog are aware that I think public companies giving out quarterly earnings guidance is something that should be eliminated in order to ensure that management teams run their businesses for the long term, not with a goal of “hitting the quarter” any way possible.

It is also fairly unreasonable to expect a CFO to be able to predict whether certain expected revenue will be booked in June or July several months in advance. It can make all the difference in the world in trying to meet or exceed previously issued guidance on a three-month basis, but should investors really care if a big order is shipped on June 25th or July 5th? I tend to think not.

Fortunately, many companies have ceased issuing quarterly guidance. Some, however, are taking this practice a step further by halting annual guidance as well. I was listening in on the Affiliated Computer Services (ACS) quarterly conference call yesterday afternoon, and they announced that they will no longer provide revenue or earnings guidance on an annual basis. ACS’s 2007 fiscal year began in July, so investors looking to get some sort of idea of how the next year will shape up are at a loss.

So, this brings us to an important point. Should investors be upset if they aren’t provided annual guidance? I tend to say “yes.” Forecasting an entire year (without breaking it down by month, quarter, or even half) shouldn’t be as difficult and unproductive as issuing quarterly guidance. I don’t care if some business gets pushed into Q2 from Q1 at the last second, but I still want to have some idea of how 2007 is going to look compared with 2006.

If I don’t have any idea how fast a company will grow its earnings, how can I assign the stock a multiple that I think represents fair value? It makes life awfully difficult. Just give us a range of, say 5%, for forward annual growth. If ACS says 2007 growth in earnings will be 5%-10%, I have an idea of how much to pay for the stock. If I don’t know if growth is expected to be 0% or 15%, the fair value ranges I could come up with become so wide they are fairly useless.