Law enforcement has crime scene investigators to tell them the significance of a bloody fingerprint or a half-smoked cigarette, but investors are often left to their own devices when it comes to trying to figure out whether an accounting crime has taken place and where the fingerprint might be. Now more than ever, investors have to become forensic accountants themselves if they want to avoid being burned by unscrupulous accounting in a company's financials. In this article we will look at some common signs, both obvious and subtle, that a company is struggling and trying to hide it.
Exaggerating the Facts
With all the big baths that companies take, it's tempting to believe that Wall Street is the cleanest place on earth. The big bath refers to the swelling of corporate write-downs in the wake of poor quarters. When a company is going to take a loss anyway, they sometimes take the opportunity to write off everything they possibly can. This is often compared to spring cleaning; the company realizes losses from future periods and/or losses that were kept off the books in previous quarters. This makes poor results look even worse and artificially enhances the next earnings report. In this case, there is no actual crime taking place, but it is a deceptive accounting practice. However, the biggest problem with this practice is that once a company has taken a big bath, income manipulation is a step away. (For more insight, see Cooking The Books 101.)
A company taking a big bath isn't difficult to evaluate in comparison with other companies in its sector that haven't used deceptive accounting practices. Generally, the company has a very bad year followed by a "remarkable" rebound in which it begins to report profits again. The danger comes when companies make an excessive write down, such as claiming unsold inventory as a loss when it is probable that it will be sold in the future. In this case, when the inventory moves, the company would add the profits to their operational earnings. This type of income manipulation makes it hard to tell whether the company is actually rebounding or is merely enjoying the benefits of the items they "erroneously wrote off". This type of write off is similar to the difference between spring cleaning and burning down your house for the insurance money, so any company that rebounds quickly from a big bath should be viewed with suspicion.
Smoke and Mirrors
One of the most prevalent approaches to corporate accounting is to omit the bad and exaggerate the good. There are a number of subjective figures in any financial report that accountants can tweak. For example, a company may choose to exclude costs unrelated to its core operations when figuring its operating cash basis - say an acquisition of another company or purchasing investments - but will still include the revenue from the unrelated ventures when calculating their quarterly earnings. Fortunately, companies have to break down the figures, thus dispersing the smoke and mirrors, but if you don't look beyond a few main figures in a company's financials you won't catch it. (For more on this, see How Some Companies Abuse Cash Flow and Analyze Cash Flow The Easy Way.)
Finding the Accomplice
There can be a number of accomplices to any accounting crime, but two popular suspects are special purpose entities (SPE) and sister companies. SPEs allowed Enron to move massive amounts of debt off its balance sheet and hide the fact that it was teetering at the edge of insolvency. Sister companies have also been used as a way to spin off debt as new business. For example, a pharmaceutical company could create a sister company and hire it to do its research and development (R&D) (pharmaceuticals' biggest expense). Instead of doing the work, the sister company hires the parent company to do their own R&D - thus the parent company's biggest expense is now in the income earned column and no one notices the perpetually debt-ridden sister company. Nobody, that is, except those who read the footnotes.
The footnotes list all financing related affiliates and financial partnerships. If there is no accompanying information disclosing how much the company owes to the affiliates or what contractual obligations there are, you have plenty of good reasons to be suspicious. (To learn more, read Footnotes: Start Reading The Fine Print, and How To Read Footnotes - Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.)
Sometimes when a company is struggling, it starts dipping into financial reserves that it hopes no one will notice. Target No.1 is usually the pension plan. Companies will optimistically predict the growth of the pension plan investments and cut back on contributions as a result, thereby cutting expenses. When the pensions start coming due, however, the company will have to top off the plans from current revenue - making it clear that putting off expenses doesn't make them go away. A healthy company pension plan has become critical as baby boomers near retirement. (For more on this, see Analyzing Pension Risk and The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation Rescues Plans.)
Getting Rid of the Body
Companies may try to hide an unsuccessful quarter by pushing unsold merchandise into the market, or into the distributors' storage rooms. This is usually called channel stuffing. This may save a company from a big quarterly loss, but the goods will return unsold eventually. Channel stuffing can be detected in two figures: the stated inventory levels and the cash meant to cover bad accounts. If inventory level suddenly drops or the money for bad accounts is drastically increased, channel stuffing may be taking place.
Because the Canadian and American markets are so intertwined, companies that trade on both exchanges can choose which country's accounting standards to use. If a company changes from the historical accounting standards for that firm, there had better be a good explanation. The two systems, while generally similar, account for income in different ways that may allow a wounded company to hide its weakness by switching sides. Any change in accounting standards is a huge red flag that should prompt investors to go over the books with a fine-toothed comb.
Guilty Tongues Slip
Damning statements are often casually mentioned in a company's financials. For example, a "going concern" note in the financials means that you should get out your magnifying glass and pay close attention to the following lines. With the practice of overstating the positive and understating the negative, a company admitting to a "going concern" may actually be confiding that they are two steps from bankruptcy. Unexpectedly switching auditors or issuing a notice that the CEO is resigning to pursue "other interests" (most likely in the Cayman Islands) are also causes for concern.
Although there are many interesting numbers in a company's financials that allow you to make a quick decision about a company's health, you can't get the full story that way. Due diligence means rolling up your sleeves and scouring the sheets until you are sure that those main figures are real. The best place to start looking for bloody fingerprints is in the footnotes. Reading the footnotes will provide you with the clues you'll need to track down the truth.