Our Chapter and the ACFE have published a number of articles and posts over the last few years about the various types of pressures that can push ethically challenged employees over the line between temptation and the perpetration of an actual accounting fraud. One category of such pressure stems directly from the nature of our present system of periodic financial reporting which, it can be argued, not only creates unnecessary volatility in the stock and financial markets but ends up requiring rational investors to demand a premium for securities investments by emphasizing the short term risk that near term, inflexable, quarterly earnings targets will not be met. The pressure to meet these short term targets can only give rise to operational inefficiencies which in turn drive up the inherent inefficiency in the transmission of information from public companies to financial markets based on a model which hasn’t changed much since its original definition during the Great Depression years of the 1930’s.
I’ve seen articles in the Journal of Accountancy and in other authoritative financial publications pointing toward a better way and, with the advent of and widening support for the electronic reporting of financial results to the SCC (the XBRL initiative), we can hope we’re well into the drawn of a new age. That there’s been pushback to this effort is understandable. Those familiar with the technical and professional minefield of the present quarterly reporting process can only feel sympathy with those financial officers who have to go through it, quarter by quarter and year after year. Questions originally abounded about process and mechanics like how is electronically published financial information going to be verified and what real controls are there over its reliability? What happens if there’s an honest mistake?
Think about all this from the point of view of the fraud examiner. If enterprises, listed and non-listed, can make the transition from a periodic to a real-time, electronic based financial reporting system, the resulting efficiencies and the decrease in numerous types of fraud related risk would be truly striking. Real-time financial reporting would free our clients from the tyranny of the present, economically nonsensical, reporting of quarterly results. How much of the incentive to commit financial fraud to meet the numbers does that immediately alleviate? As one financial expert after another has pointed out over the years, there’s just no justification for focusing on a calendar quarter as the unit in which to take stock of financial performance, beyond the fact that that’s what’s presently codified in the law. By contrast, what if financial information were published and available to all users on a real-time basis? The immediate availability of such information, continuously updated, on whatever basis is appropriate for the individual enterprise and its industry, would force companies to adopt a reporting unit that ready makes sense to them and to their principal information users. For some companies that unit might be a week, a month, a quarter, semi-annually or a year. So be it. Let a thousand flowers bloom; the upshot is that what would end up being reported would make sense for the company, its industry and for the information users rather than the one-size fits all, set in stone, prescription of the present law.
An additional advantage, and one with immediate implications for fraud prevention, would be the opportunity for increased efficiency in financial markets as investment dollars could be allocated not according to quarterly results or according to the best guess estimates of financial analysts, but by reliable financial information provided directly by the company all the time; goodbye to many of the present information control vulnerabilities that support insider trading because information is not widely and efficiently disseminated. The point is that by employing digital, cloud-based analytics report building tools properly, users of all kinds could customize a set of up-to-date financial reports (in whatever format) on whatever time period, that suits their fancy.
But many have also pointed out that if there is to be such a shift from periodic to real-time financial reporting, there needs to be a fundamental change in basic attitudes toward financial reporting. Those who report and those who inspect financial information will have to change their focus from methods by which the numbers themselves are checked (audited) to methods (as with XBRL) that focus on the reliability of the system that generates the numbers. That’s where fraud examiners and other financial insurance professionals come in. On-line financial information will be published with such frequency and so rapidly, that there will be no time to “check” individual numbers; the emphasis for assurance professionals will, therefore, need to shift away from checking numbers and balances to analysis of and reporting on the integrity of the system of internal controls over the reporting system itself; understanding of the details of the internal control system over financial reporting will gain a level of prominence it’s never had before.
Fraud examiners need to be aware of these issues when counseling clients about the profound impact that digitally based, on-line reporting of financial information is and will have on their fraud prevention and fraud risk assessment programs. As with all else in life, real time financial reporting will inevitably decrease the risk of some fraud scenarios and increase the risk of others.