Looking back at Enron, perhaps the company best known for committing accounting fraud, you can see the many methods that were utilized in order to improve the appearance of its financial statements. Through the use of off-balance sheet special purpose vehicles, the firm hid its liabilities and inflated its earnings.

For instance, in 1999, limited partnerships were created for the purpose of purchasing Enron shares as a mean of improving performance of its stock. It all worked for a while. But Enron's aggressive accounting practices and financial statement manipulation began to spiral out of control, and its doings were eventually uncovered by The Wall Street Journal. Shortly after, on December 2, 2001, Enron filed for Chapter 11 in what was the largest U.S. bankruptcy in history, only to be surpassed by WorldCom less than a year later.

Key Takeaways

  • Financial statement fraud is when a company's financial accounts such as their balance sheet or income statement are altered in such a way to hide their true figures.
  • Also known as "cooking the books", this type of fraud has led to some of the largest Wall Street scandals in history, including the fall of Enron and Worldcom.
  • Several laws and regulations, including the Sarbanes-Oxley Act are in place to detect and punish instances of financial statement fraud.

Detecting Financial Statement Fraud


The U.S. government has responded to financial fraud with preventative measures. Despite passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) of 2002 – a direct result of the Enron, WorldCom and Tyco scandals – financial statement improprieties remain too common an occurrence. And complex accounting fraud such as that practiced at Enron is usually extremely difficult for the average retail investor to discover. However, there are some basic red flags that help. After all, the Enron fraud was not exposed by high-paid Ivy League MBA-holding Wall Street analysts, but by news reporters who used journal articles and public filings in their due diligence process. Being first on the scene to uncover a fraudulent company can be very lucrative from a short seller's perspective and can be rather beneficial to a skeptical investor who is weighing in the overall market sentiment.

The rules and enforcement policies outlined in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act amended or supplemented existing laws dealing with security regulation, including the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and other laws enforced by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The new law set out reforms and additions in four principal areas:

  1. Corporate responsibility
  2. Increased criminal punishment
  3. Accounting regulation
  4. New protections

What Is Financial Statement Fraud?

According to a study conducted by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE), fraudulent financial statement accounts for approximately 10% of incidents concerning white collar crime. Asset misappropriation and corruption tend to occur at a much greater frequency, yet the financial impact of these latter crimes is much less severe. ACFE defines fraud as "deception or misrepresentation that an individual or entity makes knowing that the misrepresentation could result in some unauthorized benefit to the individual or to the entity or some other party." Greed and work pressure are the most common factors pushing management to deceive investors and creditors.

Financial statement fraud can surface in many different forms, although once deceptive accounting practices are initiated, various systems of manipulation will be utilized to maintain the appearance of sustainability. Common approaches to artificially improving the appearance of the financials include: overstating revenues by recording future expected sales, understating expenses through such means as capitalizing operating expenses, inflating assets' net worth by knowingly failing to apply an appropriate depreciation schedule, hiding obligations off of the company's balance sheet and incorrect disclosure of related-party transactions and structured finance deals.

Five basic types of financial statement fraud exist:

  1. fictitious sales
  2. improper expense recognition
  3. incorrect asset valuation
  4. hidden liabilities
  5. unsuitable disclosures

Another type of financial statement fraud involves cookie-jar accounting practices, a procedure by which a firm will understate revenues in one accounting period and maintain them as a reserve for future periods with worse performance. Such procedures remove the appearance of volatility from the operations.

And then, of course, there is the total fabrication of statements. In the spring of 2000, financial fraud investigator Harry Markopolos approached the SEC, claiming that the $65 billion wealth management business of Bernard Madoff was fraudulent. After modeling Madoff's portfolio, Markopolos realized that the consistent returns achieved were impossible. For example, according to an interview with the Certified Fraud Investigator, he "concluded that for Madoff to execute the trading strategy he said he was using he would have had to buy more options on the Chicago Board Options Exchange than actually existed." Fortunately, this sort of fraud is pretty rare.

Financial Statement Fraud Red Flags

Financial statement red flags provide a general overview of the warning signs investors should take note of. They do not necessarily indicate an occurrence of financial statement fraud, but merely signal that further in-depth research must be conducted to assess the validity of the corporate documents. Creditors would find such information useful to ensure that loans are not provided to firms operating with an elevated amount of risk. Investors, on the other hand, may want to take note of the following factors to discover new shorting opportunities.

The most common financial statement fraud red flags:

  • Accounting anomalies, such as growing revenues without a corresponding growth in cash flows. Sales are much easier to manipulate than cash flow but the two should move more or less in tandem over time.
  • Consistent sales growth while established competitors are experiencing periods of weak performance. Of course, this may be due to efficient business operations rather than fraudulent activity.
  • A rapid and unexplainable rise in the number of day's sales in receivables in addition to growing inventories. This suggests obsolete goods for which the firm records fictitious future sales.
  • A significant surge in the company's performance within the final reporting period of fiscal year. The company may be under immense pressure to meet analysts' expectations.
  • The company maintains consistent gross profit margins while its industry is facing pricing pressure. This can potentially indicate failure to recognize expenses or aggressive revenue recognition.
  • A large buildup of fixed assets. An unexpected accumulation of fixed assets can flag the usage of operating expense capitalization, rather than expense recognition.
  • Depreciation methods and estimates of assets' useful life that do not correspond to those of the overall industry. An overstated life of an asset will decrease the annual depreciation expense.
  • A weak system of internal control. Strong corporate governance and internal controls processes minimize the likelihood that financial statement fraud will go unnoticed.
  • Outsized frequency of complex related-party or third-party transactions, many of which do not add tangible value (can be used to conceal debt off the balance sheet).
  • The firm is on the brink of breaching their debt covenants. To avoid technical default, management may be forced to fraudulently adjust its leverage ratios.
  • The auditor was replaced, resulting in a missed accounting period. Auditor replacement can signal a dysfunctional relationship while missed accounting period provides extra time to "fix" financials.
  • A disproportionate amount of management compensation is derived from bonuses based on short term targets. This provides incentive to commit fraud.
  • Something just feels off about the corporation's business model, financial statements or operations

Financial Statement Fraud Detection Methods

Spotting red flags can be extremely challenging as firms that are engaged in fraudulent activities will attempt to portray the image of financial stability and normal business operations. Vertical and horizontal financial statement analysis introduces a straightforward approach to fraud detection. Vertical analysis involves taking every item in the income statement as a percentage of revenue and comparing the year-over-year trends that could be a potential flag cause of concern. A similar approach can also be applied to the balance sheet, using total assets as the comparison benchmark, to monitor significant deviations from normal activity. Horizontal analysis implements a similar approach whereby rather than having an account serve as the point of reference, financial information is represented as a percentage of the base years' figures. Likewise, unexplainable variations in percentages can serve as a red flag requiring further analysis.

Comparative ratio analysis also allows analysts and auditors to spot discrepancies within the firm's financial statements. By analyzing ratios, information regarding day's sales in receivables, leverage multiples and other vital metrics can be determined and analyzed for inconsistencies. A mathematical approach, known as the Beneish Model, evaluates eight ratios to determine the likelihood of earnings manipulation. Asset quality, depreciation, gross margin, leverage, and other variables are factored into the analysis. Combining the variables into the model, an M-score is calculated; a value greater than -2.22 warrants further investigation as the firm may be manipulating its earnings while an M-score less than -2.22 suggests that the company is not a manipulator Similar to most other ratio-related strategies, the full picture can only be accurately portrayed once the multiples are compared to the industry and to the specific firm's historical average.

The Bottom Line

Having proper knowledge of the red flags to avoid companies indulging in unscrupulous accounting practices is a useful tool to ensure the safety of your investments. Still, even with laws regulating financial reporting and accounting methods in place to detect this type of illegal activity, bad actors still try to cook the books to hide losses, launder money, or otherwise defraud unsuspecting investors.