订阅

多平台阅读

微信订阅

杂志

申请纸刊赠阅

订阅每日电邮

移动应用

商业

通用电气到底有没有做假账?一位会计师说,比安然更严重

Shawn Tully 2019年08月23日

在揭露伯尼·麦道夫超级庞氏骗局的马克波洛斯看来,通用电气已经成为一家僵尸企业。

在通用电气位于英国蒙特罗斯的制造工厂,一台海底油气树沉入测试池。图片来源:Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

谁才是正确的?是那位爆料伯尼·麦道夫超级庞氏骗局的侦探,还是通用电气的权威董事会和德高望重的首席执行官?不过,通用电气的这支高管团队在拯救和重塑这家深陷困境的企业方面取得了重大进展,并因此而备受华尔街的赞誉。

哈里·马克波洛斯是一位曾经将麦道夫拉下马的调查会计师,他于8月16日发布了一篇爆炸性报告《通用电气:比安然公司更大的骗局》,称通用电气实施了380亿美元的会计造假。他指责这家曾经涉猎工业和金融的巨型企业故意不储备充足的准备金来应对其长期护理保险业务巨大的短期和未来亏损,并因为没有对其Baker Hughes通用电气能源部门的巨额减记记账而违反了美国会计准则。在马克波洛斯看来,通用电气已经成为一家僵尸企业。他称,安然和世通公司在其史诗级骗局曝光4个月之后便轰然倒塌,因此通用电气的倒塌速度也不会慢到哪去。他在CNBC上表示:“通用电气的破产是迟早的事。”

马克波洛斯并非只是针对前任首席官杰弗里·伊梅尔特统领的通用电气,他还指责通用电气的现任高管团队不仅不了解其晦涩难懂的财务报表,而且情况更加糟糕。在雅虎财经的采访中,他表示,“通用电气的财务报表基本上没法阅读”,而且“我怀疑”首席执行官拉里·卡尔普是否也能看得懂。当被问及首席执行官和首席财务官是否存在遮掩行径时,他回答说:“我认为是的。”那么为什么马克波洛斯不允许通用电气在上市之前对其发现的内容进行审核呢?马克波洛斯对雅虎财经的采访记者说,“谁会愿意与造假犯交流,难道还要给他们掩盖这一切的机会?”

马克波洛斯对当前高管层的指责引发了轩然大波,因为通用电气最近刚刚任命了一位德高望重的首席执行官,而且组建了一个几乎全新、非常有威望的董事会。包括美国前首席会计在内的这些董事刚好在报告中提到的造假和权力滥用领域有着深厚的专长。通用电气的股票交易情况显示,尽管报告引发了投资者的新一轮担忧,但华尔街对于马克波洛斯所描述的灾难性结果却是无动于衷。通用电气股价于报告发布后下跌了11.3%,但随后于上周五强势反弹,将降幅收窄至温和的2.7%。在报告发布之后,卡尔普豪掷220万美元购买公司股份的举措显然给了投资者一颗定心丸。

这出对决可谓是美国企业史上最精彩的头等大事。调查者宣称,这个看似异常称职的团队并不了解公司所采用的会计方法,而且也没有意识到公司基本上处于破产边缘——甚至可能在捏造账目,但通用电气称攻击者对数字的解读有误,其目的是为了通过做空其股票来套取收益。这个问题异常重要,因为其他陷入困境的公司也可能遭遇同样的问题。精明能干的新首席执行官外加堪称内行的董事会,竟然会如此不了解这个复杂、晦涩的业务,以至于他们把一家实际上处于破产边缘的企业当成了一个东山再起的宝贝,这种情况可能发生吗?

通用电气内部人士的看法

通过与通用电气内部人士的对话得知,他们认为马克波洛斯密谋使用虚假但非常吸引眼球的罪名来拉低股价,然后借此大发横财。马克波洛斯自己也承认正在与一家未披露的对冲基金合作,而且也会从这家基金公司做空通用电气股票的收益中分一杯羹。这个时机选的真是再合适不过了:通用电气刚刚宣布其首席财务官即将离任,理财经理们则怀疑接下来是否会有负面消息流出。内部人士坚持认为,马克波洛斯利用了长期护理保险会计方法难以定性的性质。这是一个异常复杂的领域,基于繁杂的寿命假设和贴现率,其分析会让所有人都感到头疼不已。他们怀疑,这只神秘的基金通过在短暂的恐慌期抛售其短线持仓的股票,而为自己和马克波洛斯赚一笔快钱。

与美国企业的任何团队一样,通用电气的领导层似乎并不是那么好骗的主。10月1日出任首席执行官的卡尔普帮助另一家工业巨头丹纳赫集团获得了巨大的成功,在2001年至2014年期间让该公司的股价增幅超过了4倍。在很多临危受命的情况下,突然空降的超级明星首席执行官并没有什么机会从内部认真评估公司存在的问题,然后被一系列惊喜弄得措手不及。但卡尔普此前在通用电气担任了6个月的董事,因此他能够近距离了解公司所有的业务,进而可以明确断定通用电气最大的问题已经不复存在。

通用电气的未来看起来一片大好,受此吸引,一个几乎全新的董事会进入了人们的视野,而且这些董事都深谙运营和金融。2017年年初,通用电气拥有16名董事,13名离开了,在精简后的10名董事中,有6名都是前任或现任首席执行官,包括卡尔普、雅高集团首席执行官塞巴斯蒂安·巴赞,以及美国航空和咨询服务公司高知特的前任首席执行官汤姆·霍顿和弗朗西斯科·迪索扎。另外两位董事在保险行业有着丰富的经验。詹姆士·提希目前执掌Loewes(商业载体CNA的母公司),而保拉·罗斯普特·雷诺尔德是安可保险的前任负责人。霍顿和另一名董事凯瑟琳·雷斯嘉科也曾经担任过很长时间的首席财务官:霍顿曾经供职于美国航空和AT&T,雷斯嘉科曾经供职于惠普。通用电气的主要投资者特里安公司的负责人艾德·加登在该基金资产组合公司中有着不小的名气,因为他是一位亲力亲为的董事。正是在特里安公司以代理权争夺战作为威胁之后,通用电气才加快了董事会的改革步伐。

通用电气审计委员会负责人是莱斯利·瑟德曼,她是美国财务会计准则委员会的前任主席,而该委员会是美国报告准则的制定方。彬彬有礼的瑟德曼在揭露隐患方面可谓是毫不留情,有人曾经对我说:“她把钉子当早餐。”通用电气的董事会选择瑟德曼的目的就是让其重拳出击,而她也给予了强有力的回应。她在CNBC上说:“马克波洛斯的报告充斥着主观意见,以及大量的煽动性、不准确声明。我并不确定作者是否真了解该领域的会计方法。难道是因为缺乏相关资质或者存在其他什么动机?”她将有关造假的指责当作对其个人的冒犯:“我可以全权过问公司的会计、账目和记录,我支持公司的财务报告。造假指控是毫无根据的。”

在瑟德曼看来,这场游戏就是为了散布捏造的不法谣言,从而迅速地大赚一笔。她总结道:“今天发布的报告树立了一个非常危险的案例,一些人只要凭口说说,然后就可以从股价的下跌中套取金钱收益。这种做法是错误的。”

尽管如此,有鉴于马克波洛斯此前披露会计造假的战绩,通用电气必须严肃应对。马克波洛斯的团队花了7个半月的时间制作了这份168页的报告,其内容异常详细和具体。除非通用电气加以澄清,否则投资者将对以下四大领域产生质疑。

报告中提到的未披露损失实在是超乎想象

报告称,通用电气需要立即向其长期护理准备金中额外注入185亿美元的现金,以便为服务其投保人的养老院等类似机构支付账单。报告称,这是因为公司储存的准备金还远不够用于支付新的理赔,这些理赔额已经大大高于保费。此外,根据变化后会计准则的强制规定,通用电气在2021年第一季度之前将不得不进行105亿美元的非现金减记。这一指控实际上是在说其未来的债务额度远超其资产负债表所列的数字。除了长期护理保险领域290亿美元的缺口之外,马克波洛斯坚持认为,通用电气对其控股油气业务Baker Hughes 91亿美元的投资存在水分。这也让其所谓的“会计造假”总额达到了380亿美元。

这可是一个巨大的数目,相当于通用电气预发布市值的40%。但马克波洛斯坚持认为,这只不过是“冰山一角”罢了。

理赔额已远超保费

在00年代中期,通用电气曾经对已出售其原始保险责任的8家承保商的28万名长期护理接受者进行了再保险,并因此承担了这些保单的所有风险。这一领域涵盖的服务包括养老院住院、生活辅助设施和家庭看护。它是保险业务中最难以预测的部分,而且对很多承保险企来说都是一个很亏的买卖。因为人们的寿命大大高于数十年前他们签约时精算师所预计的寿命,而且还因为医疗成本已经出现了大幅上涨,因此所缴保费以及投资收益通常远不够支付这些生命终期服务。

马克波洛斯称,通用电气的表现比其竞争对手差很多,原因有两点:第一,公司不仅远未储备足够的准备金来支付未来理赔所需资金,而且还将保费用于开展股票回购和派息;第二,相比保诚集团或Unum公司,其保单的风险和成本都更高。2013年,通用电气最大的保险部门收到了1.92亿美元的保费,支付了1.6亿美元的理赔,盈余3200万美元。但随后保费开始下降,理赔则开始飙升,正因为如此,通用电气去年的保费为1.13亿美元,支付了5.94亿美元,赤字达到了4.82亿美元。其理赔/保费的赔付率达到了5.2比1,这意味着公司每收1美元保费就得赔5美元。作为对比,保诚和Unum的保费则超过了开支。

马克波洛斯认为,在通用电气有义务支付的未来理赔中,通用电气可支付的数量仅占总理赔数量的约13%。他称,理赔数量呈现出“几何式”的增长,因此,相比较通用电气填补未来准备金窟窿所需的资金,如今280亿美元的直接缺口只不过是其中的一小部分罢了。

通用电气将所需准备金用于股票回购、派息和高管薪酬

从2012年到2018年,通用电气的净收入达到了149亿美元,然而却在回购和派息方面花费了1060亿美元。在这8年期间,通用电气支付5名职级最高高管的薪酬费用为6.37亿美元,占净收入的比例达到了惊人的4.2%。马克波洛斯坚持认为,公司简单地将保费看作是可用于犒劳股东或支付高管薪酬的“收入”,但其中的大部分资金都应该作为准备金。

为什么马克波洛斯称通用电气行将就木?

马克波洛斯称,如果通用电气将这280亿美元算作暗亏,其股东的股本将缩水至微不足道的62亿美元。由于通用电气的负债总额达到了1060亿美元,其债务/股权比将跃升至17比1。这点不起眼的股本作垫将让通用电气违反银行和债券持有者的贷款协议,而让这些出借方将敦促通用电气破产,并通过逼迫通用电气销售资产来回笼部分资金。

然而,这种灾难性画面并没有让投资者异常惊慌,至少眼下还没有。通用电气最好的应对措施应是用高度透明的事实来反驳。其明星云集的董事会信誓旦旦地称事实站在公司这一边。这家极度神秘的公司之所以成为了攻击对象,其自身在一定程度上也是难辞其咎,因为对于这项分析师需要大量数据进行评估的神秘业务,通用电气公布的数据实在是太少了。

对决开始了,投资者到底会支持哪一方呢?(财富中文网)

译者:冯丰

审校:夏林

Who’s right, the sleuth who exposed Bernie Madoff’s gigantic Ponzi scheme, or GE’s prestigious board and highly-regarded CEO, a team lauded on Wall Street for making great progress in rescuing and reforming the battered conglomerate?

In his flame-throwing report released on August 16, titled “General Electric, A Bigger Fraud Than Enron,” Harry Markopolos––the forensic accountant who nailed Madoff––accuses GE of engaging in $38 billion in accounting fraud. He’s charging that the one-time industrial and financial colossus willfully failed to take adequate reserves to cover gigantic current and future losses in its long-term care insurance business, and violated U.S. accounting rules by failing to book a big write down on its Baker Hughes GE energy unit. For Markopolos, GE is a dead enterprise walking. He cites that legendary frauds Enron and WorldCom collapsed just four months after their misdeeds were exposed, and says that GE could implode just as fast. “GE is a bankruptcy waiting to happen,” he declared on CNBC.

Markopolos isn’t just targeting the previous regime of former CEO Jeffery Immelt. He’s alleging that GE’s current C-suite doesn’t understand its opaque financial statements--and worse. In an interview on Yahoo Finance, he stated that “GE’s financial statements are almost unreadable,” and that “I doubt” that CEO Larry Culp can read them. Asked if the CEO and CFO are engaged in a cover-up, he responded, “I believe so.” Why didn’t Markopolos allow GE to review his findings before going public? “Who wants to talk to the fraudsters so that they can engage in a cover-up?” Markopolos told the Yahoo Finance interviewers.

Markopolos’ assault on today’s leadership is extraordinary, because GE has recently named a highly-respected CEO, and a mostly new, extremely prestigous board. The directors, who include America’s former chief accountant, boast strong expertise in just the areas where the report finds fraud and abuse. The trading in GE stock indicates that while the report has raised new worries among investors, Wall Street isn’t close to buying the Markopolos disaster scenario. After dropping 11.3% the day of the release, shares rebounded strongly on last Friday, shaving the decline to a modest 2.7%. Culp’s purchase of $2.2 million in GE’s shares immediately following the report’s release clearly provided comfort for investors.

The duel is one of the most fascinating, and significant events, in corporate America. The investigator alleges that what appears to be a highly qualified team doesn’t comprehend its own accounting, and fails to recognize that it’s virtually insolvent––and may even be cooking the books––while GE claims that its attacker has the numbers all wrong, and is motivated by financial gain reaped from sinking its stock. The question is a crucial one that could apply to other troubled companies. Is it really possible that a crack new CEO and board, armed with all the right credentials, can fail to understand a complex, opaque business to the point where what they think is a resurgent enterprise is really on the brink of failure?

Inside GE

According to my conversations with GE insiders, they believe Markopolos––who acknowledges working with an undisclosed hedge fund that’s giving him a share of their gains from shorting GE stock––plotted to use false but headline-grabbing charges drive down the shares and make a killing for himself. The moment was propitious: GE just announced that its CFO is leaving, raising questions among money managers of bad news to come. The insiders maintain that Markopolos capitalized on the hard-to-fathom nature of long-term care insurance accounting, a fiendishly complicated area built on complicated mortality assumptions and discount rates that make anyone’s head hurt to analyze. They suspect that the secretive fund cleaned up by dumping its shorts during the brief panic, making an easy buck themselves and for Markopolos.

The GE leadership would seem about as hard to con as any team in corporate America. Culp, named CEO on October 1, had scored a spectacular success at the helm of another industrial conglomerate, Danaher, multiplying its share price over five-fold from 2001 to 2014. In many rescue situations, a superstar CEO parachutes in at short notice without having the opportunity to carefully assess the company’s problems from the inside, and then gets overwhelmed by serial surprises. But Culp took the job after serving as a director for six months, so he was able to examine all of its operations at close range, so he clearly believed that GE’s worst problems were behind it.

GE’s future also looked promising enough to attract a mostly new board deep in operating and financial talent. In early 2017, GE had 16 directors; thirteen have departed, and among the slimmed-down group of ten are six former or current CEOs, including Culp, Accor chief Sebastien Bazin, and the ex-CEOs of American Airlines and Cognizant, Tom Horton and Francisco D’Souza. The two others have extensive experience in insurance. James Tisch runs Loewes, owner of commercial carrier CNA, and Paula Rosput Reynolds, former head of Safeco. Horton and another director, Catherine Lesjak, also held big time CFO positions: Horton at both American and AT&T, and Lesjak at Hewlett Packard. Ed Garden, a principal with at Trian, a major GE investor, is renowned as a hands-on director at the fund’s portfolio companies. It was Trian that threatened a proxy battle hastening the transformation of the board.

The audit committee head is Leslie Seidman, former chief of the Financial Accounting Standards Board, the organization that establishes U.S. reporting standards. Seidman blends a pleasant manner with an approach to unearthing pitfalls so tough that as one person told me, “she eats nails for breakfast.” The board chose Seidman to deliver a big punch, and she hit back hard. “The report is full of opinions,” she said on CNBC. “It’s full of inflammatory and inaccurate statements. I’m not sure the author really understands accounting in this area. Is it because of incompetence or some other motivation?” She took the allegations of fraud as a personal affront: “I have full access to the people and books and records and I stand behind the financial reporting of this company. There is no basis for an allegation of fraud.”

For Seidman, the game is spreading tall tales of malfeasance to grab a quick windfall. “This report today set a very dangerous precedent,” she concluded. “where somebody can just say things, and benefit monetarily from the decline in the stock. That is wrong.”

Nevertheless, Markopolos must be taken seriously because of his previous record exposing accounting fraud. His team took seven-and-a-half months to produce the 168 page report, and it is extremely detailed and specific. Here are four areas that could raise big concerns for investors unless GE addresses them.

The alleged undisclosed losses are really, really big

The report charges that GE needs to immediately pump $18.5 billion in new cash into its long-term care reserves to make payments to nursing homes and the like that serve its policy holders. That’s because, the report claims, it has failed to put aside nearly enough in reserves to fund new claims, which massively exceed premiums. In addition, GE will be forced to take a $10.5 billion, non-cash writedown mandated by a change in accounting standards by the first quarter of 2021. That charge in effect acknowledges that its future obligations are a lot bigger than the numbers on its balance sheet. Besides that $29 billion shortfall on the long-term care side, Markopolos maintains that GE is overstating its investment in its majority owned oil and gas unit Baker Hughes by $9.1 billion. That brings the total in what he calls “accounting fraud” to $38 billion.

That’s a brobdingnagian figure, equivalent to 40% of GE’s pre-release market cap. And Markopolos insists it’s just “the tip of the iceberg.”

Claims are swamping premiums

In the mid-2000s, GE arranged to “re-insure” 280,000 long-term care recipients for eight carriers that had sold the original coverage, taking on the full risk for those policies. The sector encompasses services such as residence in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and home care. It’s one of the most unpredictable parts of the insurance business, and it’s proven a big loser for many carriers. Because folks are living far longer than the actuaries estimated decades ago when they signed up, and because medical costs haves soared, the premiums collected and invested frequently don’t come close to covering those end-of-life services.

According to Markopolos, GE performed much worse than its competitors for two reasons. First, it didn't put nearly enough money aside to remotely fund future claims, instead spending the premiums on share buybacks and dividends, and second, its policies were much riskier, and costlier, than those of a Prudential or Unum. In 2013, GE’s biggest insurance unit collected $192 million in premiums and paid out $160 million in claims, for a surplus of $32 million. But premiums are declining while claims soar, so that last year GE took in $113 million in premiums, and paid out $594 million, for a deficit of $482 million. Its “loss ratio” of claims to premiums is thus 5.2 to 1, meaning it spends $5 for every dollar it collects. By contrast, at both Pru and Unum, premiums exceed expenses.

Markopolos asserts that GE has paid only around 13% of the total claims it will be obligated to cover in the future. The claims, he says, are rising “exponentially” so that today’s immediate $28 billion shortfall represents only a fraction of what GE would need to add to future reserves.

GE squandered money needed for reserves on buybacks, dividends and c-suite pay

From 2012 to 2018, GE generated $14.9 billion in net income, yet it paid out $106 billion in buybacks and dividends. Over those eight years, GE paid $637 million, a staggering 4.2% of net income, to its five highest-ranking executives. Markopolos maintains that it simply treated premiums as “income” available for compensating shareholders or paying the top brass when much of that money was needed for reserves.

Why Markopolos says GE is headed for bankruptcy

Markopolos claims that if and when GE takes the $28 billion in hidden losses, its shareholders equity will shrink to a minuscule $6.2 billion. Since GE is carrying $106 billion in total debt, its debt-to-equity ratio will jump to 17 to 1. That tiny equity cushion could violate GE’s loan agreements with banks and bondholders, enabling them to drive GE into bankruptcy and recoup part of their money by forcing the conglomerate to liquidate by sell assets.

Once again, this is the disaster movie that isn’t scaring investors much––at least so far. GE’s best defense is a highly transparent, get-all-the-facts out rebuttal. Its star-studded board swears it has the facts on its side. This overly-secretive company in some ways invited the attack by revealing so little about an arcane business where analysts need lots of data to assess.

The duel has begun—and now it’s up to investors to decide who they’re backing.

我来点评

  最新文章

最新文章:

500强情报中心

财富专栏