Most of the time, I like GAAP results. They're meant to give you an objective view of a company's operations, to aid in analyzing its past performance and future opportunities.

But there are times when non-GAAP figures make a lot more sense. Take security software specialist and Motley Fool Inside Value pick Symantec (NASDAQ:SYMC), for example. In last night's third-quarter report, the company showed a massive earnings disaster in GAAP terms, reporting a net loss of $8.23 per share, compared to the year-ago $0.15 profit. Sales stopped at $1.5 billion, precisely where they were sitting a year ago.

Symantec is not bleeding cash, though. About $7 billion of that $6.8 billion net loss stems from a writedown of the company's goodwill balance, leaving just $5 billion of goodwill in the books. That looks worse than it really is.

It's a mirage!
Don't get me wrong -- goodwill matters. Born in buyouts, it's calculated by subtracting book value from the purchase price. It measures how much the acquirer is paying for the acquiree's less tangible benefits.

Serial acquirers like Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL), AT&T (NYSE:T), Time Warner (NYSE:TWX), and Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG) tend to sit on tens of billions of dollars in goodwill assets. Until this week, Symantec was a member of the very exclusive $10 billion goodwill club.

Amid the current worldwide financial chaos, those balances are ripe for a recount. In fact, SEC rules require it. Symantec CFO James Beer explained that no particular buyout was the culprit here, unlike eBay's (NASDAQ:EBAY) recent writedowns of Skype, for example.

Higher cost of capital in the new economic environment, coupled with lowered short-term growth projections, are two important parts of the calculation. But the last ingredient is "ironically, really, the fact that we invest a very large amount in R&D organically here," Beer said. "And so when you go through this calculation you have to value the organically developed intellectual property, and that is actually deducted from the amount of goodwill that you can keep on the books."

Honest R&D work reduces goodwill values? Oh yes. Accounting rules move in mysterious ways.

Why Mr. Market likes Symantec today
In non-GAAP terms, Symantec can brag about a 27% earnings gain to $0.42 per share. The high-margin services division is growing at 20% annually, even as the other segments are taking a breather.

In that light, it makes perfect sense that Symantec's stock is one of the briskest gainers on the market today, jumping more than 7% while the broader market takes another nosedive. The company can't do another writedown that big, so when sizing up Symantec, you can simply focus on the strength of current operations. In that respect, there's plenty of strength to go around.

Further Foolishness:

Symantec and eBay are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. eBay is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. The Fool owns shares of Procter & Gamble. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. You can check out Anders' holdings or a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.