On December 5th, three days ago, RIM announced a $485M write-off “related to its inventory valuation of BlackBerry PlayBook tablets”. Wall Street didn’t like the news and dumped the stock, it went down 9.7% in one session. One of the last analysts supporting RIM, Scotia Capital’s Gus Papageorgiou, finally gave up and turned vocally bearish. Others, as in this Reuters summary, grumble and suggest “necessary changes at the top of the company.”
Those are rote comments over an half-expected development: everybody knew PlayBook tablets weren’t selling well and the latest stock movement was but another step in a year-long descent:

But a second look at the numbers and at RIM’s communiqué itself raises more questions, ones I’m surprised analysts didn’t ask. Was it because RIM’s disclosure took place on a Friday, an oft-used maneuver to limit the spread of bad news?
We’ll focus on the $485M number and a look at RIM’s two previous quarters. As the company’s fiscal year starts March 1st, we have Q1 (ending in May 2011) numbers here and Q2 (ending in August 2011) results here.
For Q1 the company claims it sold 500,000 PlayBooks; for Q2, RIM says it sold 200,000 of the same tablets. Sold, in accounting parlance, is a precise term: this isn’t just a shipment, it’s a financial transaction whereby the buyer now owes RIM money, and RIM counts this as revenue and, after costs, profit.

We now turn to the cost of the PlayBook tablet. We know it’s made by Quanta, a reputable Taiwanese ODM, with approximately the same contents as Amazon’s Kindle Fire, also made by Quanta and, reportedly costing around $200 to make. Other reports peg the Playbook’s manufacturing cost around that same $200 number
Accounting rules say inventories are to be valued at the “lowest of cost or market”. If my widget costs $100 to make and sells for more, the accountants will value the inventory at $100 per unit. If, sadly, I can only sell it for $50, the inventory valuation must be $50. And, if an optimistic valuation of $100 was once used, it must now be “written down” to $50, causing a loss, even in the absence of commercial transaction. This is an inventory write-off or write-down. (This type of cashless loss mystifies normal humans who have trouble with the notion you can be profitable and go bankrupt. It’s ‘‘easy”: You make a profit the moment you sell a product for more than it costs. And you go bankrupt if your customers don’t pay but your suppliers insist on being paid. And there’s Uncle Sam to whom you owe tax on your “profit’’.)

Turning back to RIM’s $485M write-off, how many PlayBook tablets does it represent? Using the $200 cost figure as an assumption, we get 2.4 million tablets all written down to zero! This doesn’t quite make sense.
First, why write the inventory down to zero? HP’s TouchPad fire sale demonstrated the existence of demand at the $99 price level. Admittedly, Amazon’s $199 price for its Kindle Fire makes it difficult for RIM to get to that price at this stage of the PlayBook life and tattered reputation.
Second, even if we accept a write-down to zero, 2.4 million tablets is a strange number. How could RIM have accumulated such large inventory? And if the inventory hit is less than $200 per device, this increases the number of tablets in RIM’s cellar: $100 write-off per tablet yields 4.8 million devices. Impossible.

A possible explanation lies in the way ‘‘sales’’ were reported in previous quarters. Perhaps these transactions weren’t totally final, meaning they shouldn’t have been recorded as revenue because the buyer had the right to return Playbooks to RIM. Faulty reporting of revenue could spell trouble with shareholders, the SEC and hungry attorneys.
Still, RIM only reported a total of 700,000 tablets “sold” for the Q1 and Q2, they can’t have all been returned and massive returns would have been disclosed previously, one hopes.
RIM’s Q3 numbers will be released in a week, on December 12th, giving the company an opportunity to explain this strange $485M number. This should be interesting.
There’ll be more to watch, such as the year-to-year change in smartphone sales, the state of relations with applications developers and, crucially, how much cash is left in RIM’s coffers. For the last reported quarter, it was $1.15B, down from $2.1B the previous period. This isn’t much to wage today’s smartphone wars.

JLG@mondaynote.com

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