Truthful top lines: New global rules aim to make it harder for firms to fib about their revenues

Truthful top lines: New global rules aim to make it harder for firms to fib about their revenues

May 31st 2014 | NEW YORK | From the print edition

WHEN companies should recognise revenues on their books is one of the most contentious and consequential issues in the staid profession of accounting. For simple sales of goods the timing is usually straightforward, but in the areas of services and long-term contracts it gets murky fast. Companies may manipulate the “top line” of their accounts—their revenues—say, by booking sales they are not yet sure of (to boost their reported profits) or not booking sales that they are certain of (to postpone profits, and the taxes on them).

In Britain the controversy surfaced again after HP’s takeover of Autonomy in 2011. The American firm later took a big write-down on its purchase, blaming it in part on the British software firm having pumped up its reported revenues by counting expected subscription fees as current sales (the firm’s founder denied this).

Revenue recognition is perhaps the biggest headache for investors trying to compare companies in different countries. The GAAP standard used in the United States is Byzantine, with more than 100 different protocols for various permutations of transactions and industries, whereas the IFRS rules applied in most of the rest of the world offer only broad guidance.

Following 12 years of consultation, on May 28th the boards that control the two accounting systems released a new joint standard they hope will put these issues to rest. Scheduled to take effect in 2017, it represents a neat middle ground, adopting the IFRS’s principle of one size to fit all industries, but with GAAP-style clarity. It spells out how companies will have to break down sales contracts into their component obligations and allocate the total value among them, estimating the worth of any variable fees they expect, like performance bonuses. Firms will then recognise the revenue assigned to each individual element as it is completed.

The biggest impact will be felt in industries that rely on bundled product-plus-service contracts, such as software and telecoms. In the 1990s Microsoft was accused of “cookie-jar accounting”, holding back revenue so as to recognise it during weak quarters, to smooth its reported earnings. The Securities and Exchange Commission filed an administrative action against the company that was later settled. Some rival software firms took the opposite approach, booking all the proceeds from sales immediately, even if they were required to offer support or upgrades in the future.

Regulators responded by bringing in the highly prescriptive accounting standards that software firms rue to this day, which make it hard to offer customers tailored packages of discounts and upgrades without falling foul of the rules. The abolition of such industry-specific rules should give software firms more flexibility to negotiate contracts. Mobile-phone operators will henceforth book the stand-alone value of handsets upfront, even when they are providing these free as part of a bundled contract. Verizon, America’s largest mobile operator, estimates that under the new model its wireless division’s reported profit margin would have been six to nine percentage points higher in 2011.

For investors in America, the risk of switching from the rigid “rules-based” GAAP method to the IFRS’s “principles-based” approach is that unscrupulous companies will enjoy more leeway to mislead them. The new system tries to compensate for this flexibility by beefing up disclosure requirements: footnotes to financial statements will have to give detailed information about sales arrangements, so that readers can assess any questionable judgment calls.

The creation of a global rule on revenues is the biggest success yet in a decades-long effort to standardise company accounts worldwide. It may not prevent the next Enron, but it will make it easier for investors to judge companies, while helping multinationals cut compliance costs.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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