[OPE-L:6173] WS & accounting

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@stanford.edu)
Date: Sun Nov 11 2001 - 13:48:28 EST

doug henwood kindly drew the following to my attention

Sunday November 11, 12:16 pm Eastern Time

Wall Street takes aim at accounting tricks

By Deepa Babington

NEW YORK, Nov 11 (Reuters) - Wall Street is starting to refuse to 
bite the bait on dubious earnings numbers highlighted by corporations 
in press releases.

Companies tout profit figures, frequently called pro forma results, 
that strip out unseemly one-time charges and expenses at record 
levels -- more than $200 billion this year alone. Investors, 
analysts, and accountants are revolting, and pressure is building to 
do away with the medley of different profit numbers or at least cut 
down on it.

Standard & Poor's, a major compiler of earnings and other financial 
data, now will treat restructuring charges, stock option expenses, 
and write-downs from ongoing operations as part of a company's 
operating earnings -- items that many companies exclude from their 
version of operating earnings.

``In the past, S&P would take a company's special charges at their 
word,'' said S&P analyst Robert Friedman, who was involved in the 
project. ``But now we're going to say, 'Hey, wait a minute.'''

The decision underscores the momentum building on Wall Street to 
scrutinize corporate accounting. One recent high-profile victim of 
this movement was Enron Corp. (NYSE:ENE - news) The energy trading 
company faced a crisis in investor confidence after it became clear 
it had boosted profits and racked up debt through complex financial 
transactions known as off-balance sheet deals.

The deals, which were structured so they wouldn't show up on Enron's 
balance sheet, caused Enron to chop almost $600 million off earnings 
for the last four years. The once-mighty company lost $20 billion in 
market value, and on Friday agreed to be bought by smaller rival 
Dynegy Inc. (NYSE:DYN - news)

Investors are scared of such stock market casualties. That's partly 
why they want to crack down on pro-forma numbers, which often present 
a much rosier picture of a company's performance because they exclude 
a whole bevy of costs that drag down the bottom line.

``Hopefully, this will put pressure on companies to think twice when 
they put out their financials,'' said Friedman.

Tech companies, in particular, conveniently have stripped out 
everything from inventory write-downs to severance costs from their 
bottom-line figures and pressured analysts to do the same with their 
earnings estimates.

Mobile phone maker Motorola Inc. (NYSE:MOT - news), for example, 
reported a third-quarter pro forma loss of $153 million early last 
month. After including charges for investment impairments, cost 
reduction activities and additional reserves for its financing of a 
Turkish cellular operator, however, the company posted a whopping 
$1.4 billion loss.

A Motorola spokesman was not available for comment.

The practice has also made it difficult for analysts and investors to 
compare the results of one company against its peers as each comes up 
with its own ideas of what should be included in pro forma earnings.

``There are so many variants of pro forma that it can cloud 
comparisons,'' said David Zion, an accounting analyst at Bear Stearns.

The proliferation of these reports has also caught the attention of 
the nation's accounting rule makers, even though they don't have the 
authority to police press releases.

The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) two weeks ago said it 
is pressing ahead with a project that will look at how some closely 
watched items such as pension fund income should be classified and 
presented in financial statements.

Corporate America was not enthused by the idea and several 
corporations wrote to the accounting body urging it not to go ahead 
with the plan, said the project's senior manager, Ronald Bossio.

But fund managers and investors are applauding.

In a survey of 223 portfolio managers by capital markets firm 
Broadgate Consultants, nine out of 10 stock pickers said companies 
need to improve how they report results. FASB needs to come up with 
one key indicator of financial performance, and companies should 
abide by it, they basically said.

If the accounting rule-making body accepted EBITDA, or earnings 
before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, as a key 
measure, companies ought to calculate it in a consistent manner and 
display it as a separate item on their statements, almost all 
managers agreed.

``I think that pro forma thing is just a way to get around Generally 
Accepted Accounting Principles,'' said Debra McNeill, a portfolio 
manager at Fremont Investment Advisors. "I think there needs to be 
some guidelines to be set out on pro forma numbers, but it does not 
necessarily need to be banned.

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