At long last, the U.S. economy seems to be recovering from the effects of the recession. But at least one major financial risk remains — corporate fraud. The good news is: A fraud expert can help investors and companies minimize losses from fraudulent conduct by simply scrutinizing a business’s financial statements.
Corporate fraud often is concealed when a business intentionally misrepresents material information in its financial reports. These misrepresentations may result from overly aggressive estimates of figures, the misapplication of accounting principles and material omissions. For instance, financial statements may conceal expenses or liabilities or report fictitious revenues in order to make a business appear more profitable than it really is.
In order to cover fraud, a perpetrator often conceals or omits information that can damage or improperly change the bottom-line results appearing in financial statements. Such omissions might include:
- Liabilities such as loan covenants or contingency liabilities.
- Significant events that are likely to affect future statements, such as potential lawsuits, impending product obsolescence and new competition.
- Accounting changes that materially affect financial statements and are subject to disclosure rules, such as methods of accounting for depreciation, revenue recognition or accruals.
Perpetrators also might engage in fraudulent manipulation, particularly in the areas of revenues, reserves, expenses and one-time charges. A falsified financial statement can improperly value sales transactions (by, for example, inflating the per unit price), recognize sales prematurely or report phantom sales that never occurred. On the other hand, expenses can be manipulated by simply delaying their recognition — whether to match expenses with their corresponding revenue or to avoid reporting a loss. Another scheme is to improperly capitalize expenses so they appear on the business’s balance sheet rather than on its income statement.
In many cases, fraudulent financial statements may show reserves that have been calculated using bad-faith estimates. For instance, a fraudster can justify a smaller amount of reserves simply by underestimating the percentage of uncollectible receivables. One-time charges, such as a charge for research and development costs for a specific product, or a write-off of goodwill, can further distort financial statement figures and help hide fraudulent activity.
Unusual trends and relationships
When fraud is suspected, a CPA can examine complex financial statements and uncover manipulation that might not be apparent to the untrained eye. A fraud expert typically begins by reviewing suspicious statements for unusual trends and relationships. Any leads are then followed by more intensive forensic accounting work. This may include analysis of journal entries, specific transactions, work papers and supporting documentation — going far beyond a standard annual audit.
Moreover, a CPA may employ several types of analyses. For instance, a vertical analysis compares the proportion of every financial statement item — or groups of items — to a total within a single year that can be measured against industry norms. A horizontal analysis compares current data with data from prior years in order to detect patterns and trends. And a financial ratio analysis can calculate ratios from the current year’s data and then compare those with previous years’ ratios for the business, comparable companies and the relevant industry. Of course, the expert must have tremendous experience in the subject industry and be able to recognize any noncompliance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.
Noncompliance is a huge red flag for financial statement fraud. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) has identified several behavioral red flags, including executives who exhibit a cavalier attitude toward internal controls, live beyond their means, have excessive organizational pressure to perform, and are unwilling to share duties or information with colleagues.
The ACFE has estimated that the median loss in financial statement fraud schemes is around $1 million. But there are other damages as well, such as the public relations damage that rogue executives who manipulate the numbers can cause. A qualified CPA can help limit your clients’ losses by finding critical omissions and manipulations.