Accounting Gimmicks Resurface as Growth Flounders

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Accounting gimmicks -- once the staple of the boom-boom stock market -- are on the rise as companies attempt to convince analysts and investors that they are profitable despite a sluggish economy, according to industry watchers.

Accounting techniques of Groupon and Zynga were under the spotlight recently, with the Securities and Exchange Commission instructing both companies to adhere to more stricter and conventional accounting standards, causing them to amend their IPO offer documents.

The creative metrics in the IPO documents of recent social-media IPOs are reminiscent of the dot-com bubble when stocks were valued on metrics like "eyeballs", while fundamentals like revenues and profits were ignored.

Rebekah Smith, director of financial advisory services at accounting and consulting firm GBQ consulting, says accounting tricks and schemes are likely to start unraveling as we head into 2012 and the lag effect catches up. "The typical accounting fraud goes on for about 18 to 26 months before it is uncovered. The frauds that took place in 2009 are not going to surface until later in 2011 or into 2012."

Financial statement fraud like the kind that took place at Enron are rare. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners estimates that such manipulation accounts for only 4.8% of total fraud cases, although it causes the most financial damage, with the median loss being more than $4 million.

But accounting gimmicks that focus on non-GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) measures are rampant and they can be misleading.

Groupon, for instance, claimed that the marketing expenses incurred to acquire customers were "one-time investments" and hence they should be excluded from the calculations of operating income.

By that metric the company made an operating profit at $81.6 million in the first quarter of 2011, as opposed to an operating loss of $113.9 million under traditional accounting standards.

However, analysts were quick to point out the metric was absurd. "If you are going to capitalize acquisition costs, the onus is on you to show proof that acquired customers stay as customers (and actually buy products for many years)," Aswath Damodaran, Professor of Finance at Stern School of Business and a reputed author of textbooks on valuation, wrote in a blog post.

"With strong competition from other online coupon based companies (like LivingSocial), it is entirely possible that customers once acquired, are fickle and move on... If that is the case, the acquisition cost has a very short amortizable life and begins to look more like an operating expense," he wrote.

Zynga issued a restatement of its second quarter results saying it did not hew to accounting standards in the way it estimates how long people play its video games. That had the effect of understating revenues during the second quarter.

While the impact of the Zynga's restatement itself was not substantial, it highlighted the murky accounting involved when it comes to new business models.

"There is a new market of publicly traded companies with business models that open more room for interpretation on how revenues and costs should be treated. We do see some aggressive accounting techniques" says Dan Mahoney, director of research at the Center for Financial Research and Analysis, a unit of MSCI that specializes in forensic accounting.

Smith of GBQ Consulting says there is a greater risk of financial statement manipulation at such new-age businesses. "We have a lot of new business models and people are still trying to understand how the finances of these companies work," she said. "Companies get to decide what to tell them investors on how their industry works. They decide what the metrics should be."

While in a traditional sector an astute analyst might call a company's bluff, it is harder when you don't have history as a guide. "We don't have a typical 10-year history. As a financial professional, you can't make a conclusion on what the financial metrics should look like," says Smith.

Mahoney at CFRA says companies with high valuations are also ripe for these sort of gimmicks, as they are under pressure to sustain valuations.

Netflix ( NFLX) has been criticized in the past for its calculation of subscriber churn rate, which looks at the number of cancellations as a proportion of subscribers. Netflix's method has the effect of overstating the subscriber base, thus making the churn rate seem lower.

Analysts have over time learned to adjust for this inconsistency. And as it turns out, the movie rental firm has drastically limited the metrics it is willing to provide , saying that in 2012 it will no longer report churn, gross subscriber additions and subscriber acquisition costs.

Problem solved.

Stern's Damodaran says companies resort to these tricks because the market analysts simplistically assign multiples to a profit metric. All companies have to do is "make a change that affects earnings and you can change the valuation," he says. "Investors need to understand what Groupon's business model is, what their potential market is, who are they going up against."

--Written by Shanthi Bharatwaj in New York

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Shanthi Bharatwaj.

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