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Big Stuff in Small Print

When I see footnotes in books, I tend to skip over them, since they're usually not too interesting. But when it comes to financial statements, I never miss a footnote.

A balance sheet, an income statement, or a statement of cash flows can tell you a lot about the firm's current health, as well as its profitability, but sometimes the footnotes are where the really juicy tidbits lurk. Often, you'll find things hiding out there that can make or break your investing decisions.

While I scan the reports for the stocks I own, I don't catch all of the best information on other companies. But finding that info is what Michelle Leder at does all the time -- frequently with fascinating results. Check out some recent findings:

  • At Brinker International (NYSE: EAT  ) , operator of Chili's, Romano's Macaroni Grill, and On the Border, proxy statements suggest that "at least three of the company's nine directors turned down a chance to chomp down on free food at Brinker," judging from their failure to take advantage of a tax gross-up (being reimbursed for the tax hit of the perk) related to the opportunity. It may be that they just didn't use the gross-up -- or they just didn't eat at the restaurants run by the company they direct. If it's the latter, that's not encouraging for shareholders, because it would be good for directors to be very familiar with the customer experience.
  • Meanwhile, Qwest (NYSE: Q) has extended the use of the company jet to the CEO's family. Leder noted that this may be the beginning of a new trend, since Computer Sciences (NYSE: CSC  ) has recently done the same. She asked a good question: "Could it be that [Computer Sciences' CEO] read about [the Qwest CEO's] deal and said, 'I'm a new CEO and I need that too?'"
  • In a recent filing, PetSmart (Nasdaq: PETM  ) chose to stop including this statement regarding the recall of tainted pet food: "The Company does not believe its defense or the outcome of these matters will materially harm its operations or financial condition." Interestingly, while PetSmart is facing lawsuits on the matter, it seems that Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG  ) , maker of Iams and Eukanuba pet foods, didn't mention any legal risks associated with it in its entire recent 10-K filing.
  • Footnotes and proxy statements are often where you'll find out about the depressing topic of exorbitant CEO compensation. For example, Sara Lee (NYSE: SLE  ) laid off Netherlands division manager Adriaan Nuhn in a restructuring and awarded him more than $4 million.
  • And lest you think there's nothing but depressing stuff in the footnotes, think again. Casey's General Stores (Nasdaq: CASY  ) earned a gold star from Leder for having a revolutionary policy like this: "We own a corporate aircraft for the exclusive business use of our employees, including but not limited to the named executive officers. Personal use of the aircraft is not permitted under Company policy."

So make sure you check out the footnotes for your own investments. You'll find some interesting stuff.

If, instead, you're thinking you don't have time to scour financial reports, consider letting others do some (or all) of the work for you -- by investing in top-notch mutual funds run by smart managers, or by taking advantage of the stock research that we provide in our investing newsletters. They sport strong track records, and you can try any of them for free, for 30 whole days -- during which time you can access all past issues and read up on every recommendation.

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