You likely saw the WSJ article last month, detailing an SEC investigation into one company’s end-of-quarter “earnings management” practices – e.g. leaning on customers to take early deliveries and rerouting products to book sales. The company says “everyone’s doing it” – and according to a McKinsey survey described in a Cleary blog, that’s not too much of an exaggeration:
Lest anyone think the SEC’s focus on “pulling in” revenues is an issue of limited relevance, note that approximately 27% of US public companies provide quarterly guidance, and evidence of widespread earnings management is not merely anecdotal. A broad survey by McKinsey reveals that, when facing a quarterly earnings miss, 61% of companies without a self-identified “long-term culture” would take some action to close the gap between guided and actual earnings, with 47% opting to “pull-in” sales. 71% of those companies would decrease discretionary spending (e.g., spending on R&D or advertising), 55% would delay starting a new project, even if some value would be sacrificed, and 34% would delay taking an accounting charge.
But the widespread nature of these practices doesn’t make the SEC more amenable to them – e.g. they imposed a $5.5 million fine and a cease-and-desist order in a recent enforcement action involving similar maneuvers. The blog notes:
The use of any of these techniques, if resulting in the obfuscation of a “known trend or uncertainty . . . that may have an unfavorable impact on net sales or revenues or income from continuing operations,” would presumably be equally objectionable to the SEC.
Accordingly, for those companies that are still providing earnings guidance, it would be prudent to make sure that your disclosure committee is having frank and frequent discussions with management about exactly what, if any, earnings management tools are being used, whether these tools fit squarely within the company’s revenue recognition policies, whether the company’s auditors are aware of the scope and persistence of these practices, and, most importantly, whether the use of the tools is, intentionally or not, masking a trend of declining sales, a declining market share, declining margins, or other significant uncertainties.
-Liz Dunshee, TheCorporateCounsel.net December 12, 2019
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