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为什么你不能完全相信公司财报?

Eleanor Bloxham 2015年11月10日

除非你喜欢用1/4的“轮盘赌”赔率来押注财务报表的真实性,亲爱的投资者们,请不要相信一家公司公布的财务数据,因为审计事务所捏造事实的可能性,超出了我们的想象。

    审计事务所的审计意见似乎是凭空捏造的。

    根据美国上市公司会计监管委员会上个月公布的一项报告,至少可以说,有超过四分之一的审计结果是这样的。该报告称,一家审计事务所对公司账目的签字保证,有超过25%的可能性是不可靠的,因为审计师并没有执行提供这些保证所需要的工作。所以,除非你喜欢用1/4的“轮盘赌”赔率来押注财务报表的真实性,亲爱的投资者们,请不要相信一家公司公布的财务数据,因为审计事务所捏造事实的可能性,超出了我们的想象。

    上市公司会计监管委员会的调查结果,基于2012年和2013年进行的数百次详细审查。委员会还表示,对2014年审计结果的审查,同样发现了类似的问题。

    审计事务所在哪些方面特别容易犯错?据委员会的研究显示,审计事务所并没有按照理应采取的步骤,确定欺诈和其他重大风险,没有评估“财务报表披露数据的准确性与完整性”,未充分检查“公司提供的信息的准确性和完整性。”而如果不对这些方面进行适当的审查,便无法通过审计发现重大错报。

    审计质量似乎变得越来越差。《今日会计》报道称:“亚特兰大估值与诉讼咨询公司Acuitas在10月15日发布了一份分析报告,对上市公司会计监管委员会近期的审查结果进行了分析。这项分析发现,在2013年审查的所有审计结果中,有43%存在不足,而在2009年,这一比例仅有16%。

    此外,操纵盈余的情况,也比我们想象的更加普遍。就在上市公司会计监察委员会的报告发布前不久,另一份名为《盈余管理蔓延的证据》的相关研究也备受关注。这项研究的作者之一、罗格斯商学院教授思米·柯迪亚曾告诉我,她的研究显示,如果一家公司在财务报告中作弊被抓,其他公司会“知道作弊的代价”。研究发现,如果“代价并不严重”,其他公司便会开始以相同的方式作弊。如果处罚非常严重,其他公司便会受到震慑,打消效仿的念头。柯迪亚表示,最近的研究专门调查了其他公司争相模仿已公开的财务作弊信息这种行为。她将其称为“公开蔓延”。这项研究表明,强有力的监管执法是多么重要。

    在传播利润操纵方面,董事会也扮演了不光彩的角色。柯迪亚表示,她和其他作者对公开蔓延所作的研究,是对2010年一项研究结果的补充。这项名为《董事会联动与盈余管理蔓延》的研究,探讨了一家公司作弊且尚未被发现时的情形。柯迪亚表示,对众多案例的研究发现,如果不同公司的董事会有相同的成员,作弊可能会从一家公司蔓延到另一家公司。2010年的研究指出,“如果共同的董事在易受影响的公司担任领导职位(如董事长或审计委员会主席)或与会计相关的职位(审计委员会成员),这种蔓延会更加严重。”

    当然,审计事务所也有老板:聘用(和解雇,但并不常见)他们的审计委员会。审计委员会应该确保,其聘用的审计事务所将严格履行职责。上市公司会计监管委员会10月发布的报告提出了一些审计委员会应该询问审计事务所的问题。然而根据2010年和最近的学术研究,我只能很遗憾地告诉投资者们,这些问题的效果恐怕无异于让狐狸看守鸡窝。(财富中文网)

    本文作者于1999年创立了独立董事会培训和咨询机构价值联盟和公司治理联盟,并担任首席执行官。她自2010年4月起成为《财富》杂志的固定撰稿人,并著有两本有关公司治理与估值的书《经济价值管理:应用与技巧》和《价值主导的组织》。

    译者:刘进龙/汪皓

    审校:任文科

    Audit firms seem to be spinning opinions out of thin air.

    At least that’s the case in more than one in four audits, according to a report issued on Ocober 15 by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB). According to the report, an audit firm’s blessing of company financials isn’t reliable more than 25% of the time because the auditors never performed the work necessary to provide their signoff. So unless you like the 1-in-4 odds in financial statement roulette, no, Ms. Investor, you cannot put your faith in the company’s reported accounting because more often than we’d like, audit firms seem to be making stuff up.

    The PCAOB’s findings are based on hundreds of detailed inspections it conducted in 2012 and 2013. The PCAOB also said it is finding similar issues based on its review of 2014 audits.

    Where in particular are audit firms dropping the ball? According to the PCAOB study, firms didn’t do what they were supposed to do to identify fraud and other significant risks, they didn’t evaluate “the accuracy and completeness of financial statement disclosures,” and they didn’t adequately test “the accuracy and completeness of information produced by the company.” Material misstatements can go undetected when these areas are not properly reviewed.

    Audit quality seems to be getting worse. Accounting Today reported that “the Atlanta-based valuation and litigation consultancy firm Acuitas released an analysis Thursday of recent PCAOB inspections and found that 43 percent of all audits inspected by the PCAOB in 2013 had deficiencies, compared to 16 percent in 2009.”

    Earnings manipulation is also more prevalent than we might think. The PCAOB report comes on the heels of a recent study titled, “Evidence on Contagion in Earnings Management.” One of the authors, Rutgers Business School professor Simi Kedia, told me that her research showed that if a company is cheating on its financial reporting and gets caught, other firms will “learn about how costly it is to cheat.” If it’s “not so bad,” she says her research shows, other firms will start cheating in the very same way. If, however, the penalties are severe, other companies are deterred from following suit. This recent research specifically reviewed instances of copycat behavior that followed public information about the cheating, Kedia told me, calling it “public contagion.” The research shows how important strong regulatory enforcement can be.

    Boards of directors also can have a role in spreading earnings manipulation. Kedia says the work she and her co-authors did on public contagion complements research done in 2010. That study, titled “Board Interlocks and Earnings Management Contagion” looked at situations where a company is cheating and hasn’t been caught yet. In those instances, if boards share similar members, that research shows that cheating may spread from company to company, Kedia says. The research from the 2010 study states that “the contagion is stronger when the shared director has a leadership position (e.g. board chair or audit committee chair) or an accounting-relevant position (audit committee member) in the susceptible firm.”

    Of course, audit firms are supposed to have bosses: The audit committees that hire (and less frequently, fire) them. Audit committees should be ensuring that the audit firms they hire do their jobs properly, and so the PCAOB report issued Thursday provides audit committees with some questions they should ask their audit firms. But given the 2010 and more recent academic research, I’m sorry to say, Mr. Investor, that could be just about as effective as asking the fox to watch the hen house.

    Eleanor Bloxham is CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance (http://www.thevaluealliance.com), an independent board education and advisory firm she founded in 1999. She has been a regular contributor to Fortune since April 2010 and is the author of two books on corporate governance and valuation, Economic Value Management: Applications and Techniques and Value-led Organizations.

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