The SEC eyes Groupon

The Groupon website.

Jeremy Hobson: There's been a lot of talk lately about Groupon, the website that emails you a coupon offer every day and lets you cash in if enough people sign up for the same deal. The company has been getting a lot of press about its meteoric rise and its plans to go public. But today, Groupon is in the news for a different reason.

The Securities and Exchange Commission is looking into whether Groupon is trying to sell investors a deal that's too good to be true. Marketplace's Jeff Horwich reports.


Jeff Horwich: At the height of the dot-com boom, companies that didn't actually make anything or have any, uh, profits, found all kinds of creative ways to express their financial promise. "Eyeballs," "click-throughs," some statistic called "mindshare." Now it looks like Groupon may be trying to party like it's 1999 -- using a metric it invented called "Adjusted Consolidated Segment Operating Income."

Rocky Agrawal: Basically I describe it as 'the best possible way to view our business if you ignore all the things that make our business look terrible.'

Rocky Agrawal is an analyst with ReDesign Mobile. Using conventional accounting methods, Groupon lost $98 million in the first quarter of this year. But using its "Adjusted CSOI," the company made $82 million. This is important, because investors need to understand Groupon's finances for its coming IPO -- which is expected to value the company at $20 billion.

Tomio Geron covers social media for Forbes.

Tomio Geron: A lot of people have had a problem with it because if you look at what they're saying, what it actually is is revenues minus marketing expenses. And they're basically a marketing company, so to subtract marketing expenses is kind of ridiculous.

Groupon wouldn't comment for this story. But its rationale is that the expensive marketing for subscribers is an upfront, one-time cost. And all the other numbers are there for investors. It's this one Groupon chooses to emphasize.

Justin Fritz of Wall Street Daily says that reasoning could be a hard sell to SEC.

Justin Fritz: I think there's a difference between emphasizing something, and for it to be basically wrong.

Why would it be wrong? Fritz says while Groupon's subscriber base is growing, the proportion of people buying deals for spa treatments and Segway tours is declining. This suggests the company will be spending plenty on marketing for the foreseeable future.

I'm Jeff Horwich for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeff Horwich is the interim host of Marketplace Morning Report and a sometime-Marketplace reporter.

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