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Let's Value People as an Asset, and Bring Financial Statements into the 21st Century

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What is your organization's most important asset? CEOs often respond that the organization's people are its greatest asset. But if this is true, where are people accounted for in the financial statements? Today, people are generally classified as expenses on the income statement and liabilities on the balance sheet -- not as an investable asset. Thus, when CEOs seek to increase profit, they cut costs -- like people -- rather than investing in assets -- like people -- that can appreciate. (Co-authored with Tom Bowmer of HIP Investor Inc.)

What is your Organization's Most Important Asset?

"The most valuable assets of a 20th-century company were its production equipment," said management guru Peter Drucker in 1999. "The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity." Drucker's prescient observation clearly highlights the reality that a majority of corporations face in today's "knowledge economy." Intangible assets -- patents, intellectual property, brands, and research & development -- are all created by people, and they are the core contributors to profits and shareholder value. In fact, investment advisory firm Ocean Tomo estimates that in 1975 more than 80% of the value in the S&P 500 firms consisted of tangible assets -- like land, plant and equipment. In 2010, approximately 80% of the S&P500 market value is attributed to intangible assets. But, today's accounting systems and financial reporting are still using 20th century definitions, creating a "gap in GAAP" (the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) on how value is created in the 21st century.

Where are People in the Financial Statements?

So why are employees categorized only as expenses (i.e. salaries) and liabilities (i.e. pensions) in the financial statements? The accounting profession has not adequately developed tools to address the structural changes in our new economic landscape. Traditional accounting methods have been designed to account for tangible assets -- like a manufacturing plant -- that depreciate over time and are reported at historical cost. Since intangible assets are not easily valued -- like a company's brand -- measuring and pricing them can be difficult. Many people may use this as an argument against creating updated accounting standards. New rules could give companies the ability to manipulate their financial statements under the guise of valuing their intangible, human assets. However, this would be missing the point.

The overarching goal of financial statements is to attempt to accurately depict the economic reality of a company and to provide users with relevant information that is going to enable investors to make sound decisions regarding their investments. A reporting system that fails to provide information on the core aspect -- more than 80% of the stock price value -- of a company's ability to create value is missing the mark. People invent products (like Apple's iPad), and people serve customers (like Zappos). Teams of people work with networks of suppliers (like Walmart) that make goods and provide services, yet all of this value is under-accounted for because people are an "invisible" asset -- and one not quantified at that.

What Choices are there to Value People as Assets?

Four decades ago in the 1960s, researchers and academics created methodologies to close the information gap created by the increasing value of intangible assets. A group of researchers at the University of Michigan authored a series of papers to develop the field of "Human Resource Accounting." In January 1967, the Harvard Business Review published, "Put People on Your Balance Sheet," which discussed various methodologies for classifying human resources as assets, including:

  • historical cost,
  • replacement cost, and
  • opportunity cost.[4]

Even the American Accounting Association allocated expertise to evaluate these approaches. In 1972, and again in 1973, the AAA formed a committee to evaluate the merits of "Human Resource Accounting." However, according to Eric Flamholtz, due to the difficulty of finding public companies to serve as test cases, the movement to put "People on the Balance Sheet" lost its momentum.

Fortunately, the effort to understand, measure, and value intangible assets has resurfaced nearly 43 years later. HIP Investor, along with our research partner Solaron, has discovered at least a dozen companies -- including global firms Infosys and Tata -- that are pioneering the integration of human asset reporting into their financial statements.

Infosys's Human Resource Valuation in the Annual Report

For example, Infosys (NASDAQ: INFY), the global technology company based in India, has measured the value of its human capital - a method co-developed by Professor Baruch Lev of NYU-Stern's School of Business - in its public and transparent annual reports for the past four years.[6] By using the Lev-Schwartz model, which calculates today's value of future compensation to employees of varying ages and experience levels, managers and investors can now track a variety of measures related to Infosys' human resources, such as "return on human resource value" and "value of human resources per employee." Infosys's annual report also includes a "comprehensive intangible assets score sheet" that can be used as a decision-making tool to determine how successful the firm has been at investing in its people from year to year.

A key factor in the shift toward viewing people as an asset is recognizing that an employee's value can appreciate with training, engagement, and teamwork -- all investments that are essential for 21st century firms. That is why our research at HIP Investor looks for all leading indicators of "human impact and profit (HIP)" in our ratings and ranking of companies, the composition of our portfolios, and the managing of our client's wealth.

Does Focusing on People Generate Higher Financial Returns?

In academia, researchers are striving to link intangible value to a company's profit and performance; you can find many of these papers at www.SRIstudies.org. The winner in 2010 was Alex Edmans at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, who found that the stock market does not fully value information about intangible assets, including employee satisfaction. Professor Edmans analyzed Fortune magazine's annual "100 Best Companies to Work For in America" lists from 1998-2010 and found that a portfolio of the publicly-listed firms consistently outperformed the standard benchmarks.

Let's bring financial statements into the 21st century. Get your company to follow the lead of companies like Infosys and Tata, and begin to quantify the value that people add to your organizations. Currently, there are no apparent leading U.S. or European companies performing this calculation -- or at least not communicating it to their staff or investors. This powerful, transparent reporting on all the assets of a company has the potential to be a catalyst for developing a set of best practices that will provide a reliable methodology for the measurement and valuation of intangibles. When this eventually happens, CEOs seeking to increase shareholder value should be more apt to spur investment in -- and not so easily lay off -- the core creators of value in their business: the people. It is only then that CEOs can be truly authentic when they herald that "people are their company's greatest asset."

Co-author Tom Bowmer is a Corporate Financial Analyst at HIP Investor Inc., a 2nd-year MBA at San Francisco State University, and a Phi Beta Kappa fellow from the University of California at Berkeley.

NOTE: This is not an offer of securities nor a solicitation. The information presented is for information and education purposes, and does NOT imply any investment recommendations. Past performance is not indicative of future results. All investing risks loss of principal. The authors, HIP Investor and HIP's clients may invest in the securities mentioned above, including in the HIP 100 Index portfolio. Details and full disclosures are at www.HIPinvestor.com