Financial statement analysis requires ‘professional scepticism’

– David Wanis, August 2019

Normally economists talk about growing the pie – the amount of economic value available for everyone to share. That is seen as a good thing.

The only pies we appear to be seeing growing almost everywhere at the moment, evidenced by full year results just delivered to the market, are the porky pies. And this is decidedly not a good thing.

Management have always massaged results. Pro-forma versions of financial accounts, which rarely shows performance in a worse light than statutory accounts, have been with us for as long as management teams have been rewarded on outcomes different to those of shareholders. We are pragmatic about their existence. Allowing management all the rope they need to present results in ways they best see fit gives us insight into their character.

Statutory accounts however are more sacred. This is supposedly the truth against which forecasts, commentary and pro forma adjustments are measured. The auditors are supposed to be signing their reputational goodwill against an assessment of how accurate a picture of the business these accounts represent. Arthur Anderson is the scary story accounting partners tell their new employees around the campfire. A story of what happens when you rent your brand to the highest bidder with the intent of deceiving the owners of the business and to assist their appointed managers (and those signing the audit invoices) in the deception.

We are increasingly finding ourselves in situations where the truth of statutory accounts is slowly receding. The income statement – because of the assumptions allowed in the treatment of accruals – has long been suspect. Guilty until proven innocent by the cash flow statement. Markets are reflexive and management are not ignorant of the increased emphasis their owners place on cash flow, so it is probably no surprise they are looking for (and finding) ways to massage these numbers as well. The method de jour is ‘supply chain financing’ – a combination of receivables factoring and payables financing – and financial engineers are busy looking for ways of liberating capital from inventories as well.

Investors have to retreat further to the balance sheet and the notes to the accounts to look for the truth, but even these fronts are under attack as some seek ways to limit disclosure but stay within the letter of the law (the spirit having been abandoned some way back).

How do we manage this conflict? Our first approach is to exercise professional judgement and maintain professional scepticism throughout our financial statement analysis. These are similar words the Audit and Assurance Standards Board suggests are the responsibilities of the Auditor in compiling their report. Our team having had professional experience in equity research, credit research and professional audit, also apply analysis less common to equity investors – which helps to uncover risks.

Understanding incentives is also critical. Management with skin in the game – which means exposure to the downside through an existing and significant interest in ordinary shares – helps a great deal. Management who propose being incentivised by pro forma or underlying earnings, or sub-components of the financial accounts they can (and do) manipulate are at the opposite end of the spectrum. We are currently watching a number of small caps who exhibit more red flags than the parade at China National Day.

Ultimately the degree of deliberate obfuscation is a quality marker which speaks volumes about management quality, corporate governance and shareholder alignment that is on the public record and relatively objective to assess.

“Creative accounting is an absolute curse to a civilization. One could argue that double- entry bookkeeping was one of history’s great advances. Using accounting for fraud and folly is a disgrace. In a democracy, it often takes a scandal to trigger reform.” – Charlie Munger

We do not seem to be near scandal levels of concern to see any reform on this front, and we won’t be until investors suffer large losses if history is anything to go by. However, we remain diligent in trying to avoid those candidates heading for the wall when the revolution comes.

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