Ideally, analysts would always have access to financial reports that are based on sound financial reporting standards, such as those from the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) and the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), and are free from manipulation. But, in practice, the quality of financial reports can vary greatly. High-quality financial reporting provides information that is useful to analysts in assessing a company’s performance and prospects. Low-quality financial reporting contains inaccurate, misleading, or incomplete information.
Extreme lapses in financial reporting quality have given rise to high-profile scandals that resulted not only in investor losses but also in reduced confidence in the financial system. Financial statement users who were able to accurately assess financial reporting quality were better positioned to avoid losses. These lapses illustrate the challenges analysts face as well as the potential costs of failing to recognize practices that result in misleading or inaccurate financial reports.1Examples of misreporting can provide an analyst with insight into various signals that may indicate poor-quality financial reports.
It is important to be aware, however, that high-profile financial scandals reflect only those instances of misreporting that were identified. Although no one can know the extent of undetected misreporting, some research suggests that it is relatively widespread. An Ernst & Young 2013 survey of more than 3,000 board members, executives, managers, and other employees in 36 countries across Europe, the Middle East, India, and Africa indicates that 20% of the respondents had seen manipulation (such as overstated sales and understated costs) occurring in their own companies, and 42% of board directors and senior managers were aware of some type of irregular financial reporting in their own companies (Ernst & Young, 2013). Another survey of 169 chief financial officers of public US companies found that they believed, on average, that “in any given period, about 20% of companies manage earnings to misrepresent economic performance, and for such companies 10% of EPS [earnings per share] is typically managed” (Dichev, Graham, Harvey, and Rajgopal, 2013).
This reading addresses financial reporting quality, which pertains to the quality of information in financial reports, including disclosures in notes. High-quality reporting provides decision-useful information, which is relevant and faithfully represents the economic reality of the company’s activities during the reporting period as well as the company’s financial condition at the end of the period. A separate but interrelated attribute of quality is quality of reported results or earnings quality, which pertains to the earnings and cash generated by the company’s actual economic activities and the resulting financial condition. The term “earnings quality” is commonly used in practice and will be used broadly to encompass the quality of earnings, cash flow, and/or balance sheet items. High-quality earnings result from activities that a company will likely be able to sustain in the future and provide a sufficient return on the company’s investment. The concepts of earnings quality and financial reporting quality are interrelated because a correct assessment of earnings quality is possible only when there is some basic level of financial reporting quality. Beyond this basic level, as the quality of reporting increases, the ability of financial statement users to correctly assess earnings quality and to develop expectations for future performance arguably also increases.
Section 2 provides a conceptual overview of reporting quality. Section 3 discusses motivations that might cause, and conditions that might enable, management to issue financial reports that are not high quality and mechanisms that aim to provide discipline to financial reporting quality. Section 4 describes choices made by management that can affect financial reporting quality—presentation choices, accounting methods, and estimates—as well as warning signs of poor-quality financial reporting.