Absolute Zero

Intuit continues to find novel ways to market its flagship consumer tax product TurboTax. Image source: Intuit.com.

Tax and accounting software provider Intuit Inc. (NASDAQ:INTU) reports fiscal fourth-quarter 2015 earnings after the markets close on Thursday. The following is a brief overview of key numbers and themes investors may want to check in on when earnings are reported:

1. Raised stakes for revenue growth
Intuit is expecting to book between $720 million-$745 million in revenue in the fiscal fourth quarter. On the release of last quarter's earnings, it raised full-year revenue guidance, bumping up the bottom of the projected range by $120 million, from $4.275 billion to $4.395 billion. In addition, the executive team lifted the top of the guidance range by $45 million, from $4.375 billion to $4.420 billion. 

Making full-year guidance adjustments after the third quarter can sometimes be tricky, as there are no more quarters to make up the shortfall if management's estimates are off. Presumably, the new range speaks to Intuit's confidence that fourth-quarter sales will be vigorous.

It could also mean that the balance in the deferred revenue account will decrease, which would have the effect of increasing revenue. Deferred revenue has grown substantially versus the prior year due to earnings recognition changes the company instituted in the first quarter. You can read more about these changes here, but essentially, after collecting payments up front for small-business desktop offerings like Quickbooks, Intuit will recognize revenue for these products on a monthly basis, in periods ranging from one to three years.

2. Earnings: The lower outlook is OK, but no surprises, please!
Last quarter, Intuit lowered its full-year earnings guidance from $800 million-$830 million to a range of $555 million-$575 million. This adjustment was due to a $263 million impairment charge it took in the third quarter against goodwill related to the 2014 acquisition of mobile bill pay company Check.

If the accounting change complexity discussed above wasn't enough, this charge against earnings made it even more difficult for the average shareholder to compare results with the prior year. CFO Neil Williams allowed during the third-quarter earnings call that it's been difficult in year one of the accounting change for analysts and investors to understand how much revenue will be recognized on a monthly basis. 

As the fiscal year closes, shareholders are likely looking forward to Intuit simply hitting its own projected earnings, without any surprises or major new adjustments. In the first quarter of fiscal 2016, results will "lap" last year's initial quarter of the new accounting method, thus revenue and earnings comparisons should be easier going forward.

3. Rate of online ecosystem expansion
Intuit's online accounting products are the fastest-growing part of its business, and worth following each quarter. Its Small Business Online Ecosystem revenue grew 20% last quarter versus the prior year, propelled by the success of Quickbooks Online, or QBO. The cloud-based version of Intuit's desktop Quickbooks product has been expanding at a breakneck pace for the last several quarters. In the third quarter, its subscriber base rose at a rate of 55% versus the comparable quarter.

Shareholders should look to the earnings release to find evidence of QBO's continued expansion. Also noteworthy will be any mention of Quickbooks Online Self-Employed in the earnings release materials. Launched in January of this year, the service tripled its subscribers last quarter, from 5,000 to 15,000, and appears to be a product with some potential heading into the new fiscal year. 

4. QBO's 80/20 rule
An important component of the Online Ecosystem expansion is the relationship between the company's legacy Quickbooks desktop products and new subscribers to QBO. So far this year, and somewhat contrary to management expectations, a substantial majority of QBO subscribers are new to the platform, rather than desktop users who have transitioned to the cloud product.

According to CEO Brad Smith, approximately 80% of QBO subscribers are first-time users and 20% are customers who have migrated from the desktop. This is somewhat of a pleasant surprise, as new users will form a market for future purchases of other Intuit products.

Nonetheless, shareholders should keep an eye on this ratio, as skewing too much toward new users may indicate that the company is encountering difficulty in migrating desktop users to the cloud product. While Intuit is expending resources to keep its legacy Quickbooks customers happy, eventually the goal is to transition the users -- and the revenue -- over to the more profitable cloud platform. The current 80/20 ratio is not a bad benchmark to maintain, if possible.

5. The growing visibility of cash flow
What will Intuit do with its expanding cash flow? The rise of monthly online subscriptions has boosted the predictability of the company's traditionally strong cash generation. In the first three quarters of the fiscal year, Intuit generated $1.72 billion of operating cash, and used a good chunk of this to repurchase $1.2 billion of its common stock.

The company has also paid out $212 million in dividends year to date. The dividend, in particular, may be ripe for adjustment, as management mentioned in May that it's evaluating both capital policy and returns to shareholders.

In answer to an analyst's question during the third-quarter earnings call, Williams, while not committing to a dividend increase, owned that "the predictability and visibility into our cash flows and cash position is pretty strong." Intuit has paid dividends only since 2011, and the stock currently yields less than 1%. For the fourth quarter, and indeed for the next year, shareholders shouldn't be surprised if the company increases its quarterly payout, which is currently set at $0.25 per share.

Asit Sharma has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Intuit. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.