Hidden In Plain Sight – Financial Statement Manipulation

Financial statement manipulation, also known as earnings management or creative accounting, involves altering financial reports to present a distorted picture of a company's financial...
Switzerland Accounting and Audit
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Financial statement manipulation, also known as earnings management or creative accounting, involves altering financial reports to present a distorted picture of a company's financial health or performance. Typically, manipulation involves inflating revenues, understating expenses, manipulating reserves or misrepresenting assets and liabilities. In systemic cases, manipulations serve to cover up Ponzi schemes, conceal substantive fraud schemes from the top or mislead investors through stock price manipulation.

Financial statement manipulation can be notoriously hard to spot (even at systemic levels) due to a number of factors including the following:

  • Complexity: Financial statements are complex documents that involve numerous accounting principles, estimates and judgments. Manipulators can exploit this complexity to hide their actions.
  • Subjectivity:  Many accounting standards require subjective judgments, such as estimating the useful life of assets or determining the fair value of investments. Manipulators can use these subjective areas to their advantage.
  • Legal but Aggressive Practices:  Some manipulative techniques fall within the bounds of accounting rules but are still considered aggressive or misleading. Distinguishing between legitimate and manipulative practices can be difficult.
  • Sophistication:  Those engaging in financial statement manipulation often have a deep understanding of accounting principles and financial markets, allowing them to exploit loopholes and obscure their actions.
  • Limited Information:  External stakeholders often have limited access to information compared to insiders within the company. This limited information makes it challenging for them to detect manipulation effectively.
  • Incentives:  Companies and individuals may have strong incentives to manipulate financial statements, such as meeting earnings targets, securing financing or inflating stock prices. These incentives can drive individuals to engage in manipulation despite the risks.

The role of forensic accountants

The starting point for forensic accountants often relies on specific allegations from whistleblowers, such as current or former employees or competitors. Such allegations are often specific, as they rely on the information of individuals with inside and detailed knowledge. Typically, this type of allegation tends to be “in private”; i.e., it is communicated to the company in some form, but not to the general public. In these instances, forensic accountants will look into specific allegations to prove or disprove them.

In other instances, the allegations put forward may be public, i.e., from financial journalists, blogs or short sellers. These types of adverse and public allegations can be unspecific and broader in nature and, as such, harder to investigate. Ratio analysis can be useful to identify areas for investigation in these instances.

Putting things into perspective: Ratio analysis

Financial statement analysis involves using various ratios to evaluate a company's performance, financial health and operational efficiency. But certain ratios, when analyzed over time or compared against industry benchmarks, can provide indications of potential fraud or misconduct.

Financial ratios can include the following:

1. Profitability Ratios

  • Gross Margin Ratio: A significant change in the gross margin ratio without a corresponding rationale (like changes in production costs or prices) can indicate revenue manipulation or cost shifting.
  • Net Profit Margin: Unusual fluctuations in the net profit margin, especially if it deviates significantly from industry averages, might suggest improper accounting practices affecting expenses or revenues.

2. Liquidity Ratios

  • Current Ratio: An abnormally high or low current ratio compared to industry norms may indicate issues with asset valuation or short-term debt management, potentially masking liquidity problems which could be a trigger for earnings manipulation.
  • Quick Ratio: Similar to the current ratio, an unusual quick ratio can reveal short-term liquidity manipulations, such as overstating receivables or understating current liabilities.

3. Efficiency Ratios

  • Receivables Turnover Ratio: A decreasing receivables turnover ratio might suggest that the company is inflating sales on credit without a corresponding increase in cash collection, possibly indicating revenue recognition fraud.
  • Inventory Turnover Ratio: An unusually low inventory turnover ratio could indicate overstocking or obsolescence but might also suggest overvaluation of inventory to boost asset values.

4. Solvency Ratios

  • Debt to Equity Ratio: A sudden increase in the debt-to-equity ratio not explained by operational or investment activities might suggest capital structure manipulation or undisclosed liabilities.
  • Interest Coverage Ratio: Difficulty in covering interest expenses (a low interest coverage ratio) could be masked by income manipulation intended to appease lenders or investors.

5. Cash Flow Ratios

  • Operating Cash Flow to Sales Ratio: A significant divergence between operating cash flow and sales revenue might indicate that reported profits are not being realized in cash, suggesting possible revenue recognition issues.
  • Cash Flow Coverage Ratios: Inability to cover capital expenditures, dividends and debt repayments with cash from operations could be hidden by manipulating cash flow from financing or investing activities.

6. Market Valuation Ratios

  • Price-Earnings (P/E) Ratio: While more reflective of market perception than internal misconduct, an outlier P/E ratio compared to the industry could warrant a closer look at earnings quality and sustainability.

7. Other Indicative Measures

  • Altman Z-Score: Used to predict bankruptcy, a low Z-Score might not directly indicate fraud but could suggest financial distress that motivates financial statement manipulation.
  • Beneish M-Score: Specifically designed to identify the manipulation of financial statements, a high M-Score indicates a high probability of earnings manipulation.

Decoding deception: Financial integrity analysis

The art of detecting financial statement manipulation follows a methodical approach, leveraging analytical techniques that explore a company's financial health beyond the surface level. Among these techniques, three pillars stand as the base of financial statement analysis: trend analysis, cross-sectional analysis and a holistic view. Each plays a pivotal role in painting a comprehensive picture of a company's financial integrity, allowing forensic accountants to spot anomalies that could indicate fraudulent activities.

Trend Analysis

This type of analysis is the temporal lens through which forensic accountants examine a company's financial performance over time. By comparing financial ratios across consecutive periods, anomalies and patterns emerge, revealing deviations from historical norms that lack reasonable justification. Such discrepancies can signal manipulative practices designed to obscure the true financial state of the company, necessitating a deeper dive to understand the underlying causes.

Cross-Sectional Analysis

This type of analysis offers a comparative perspective, benchmarking a company's financial ratios against those of industry peers. This analysis helps identify outliers — figures that contrast with sector averages — hinting at potential irregularities. Whether it is an unusually high profit margin or an unusual debt ratio, these outliers serve as red flags that prompt further scrutiny.

Holistic View

This view underscores the principle that no single financial ratio, in isolation, can conclusively indicate fraudulent activity. It is through the synthesis of various ratios, combined with an in-depth understanding of industry dynamics and the specific business context, that a more accurate interpretation of a company's financial health emerges. This comprehensive approach not only aids in identifying signs of manipulation but also in appreciating the nuanced strategies companies may employ to present their financial situation in a certain light.

Ratios are not standalone evidence

The techniques mentioned are not proof of financial statement fraud but can serve as a starting point for financial analysis and to identify areas for further investigation.

The supporting documentation for financial transactions, such as invoices, contracts and correspondence will then be verified, and the authenticity and accuracy of the recorded transactions will be scrutinized. Discrepancies between the financial records and the supporting documents can provide direct evidence of fraud. E-discovery and internal communications can provide valuable information about schemes, intention and involvement in individual and specific actions.

In addition, interviews and testimonies with management, employees and other stakeholders can yield valuable insights and evidence. Individuals may provide information on questionable practices, internal controls weaknesses or other fraudulent activities when confronted with relatable documentation.


In conclusion, lawyers or management should consult with forensic accountants early in cases of suspected (or actual) financial statement manipulation due to the complex nature of such frauds. With the ability to uncover hidden discrepancies, forensic accountants offer a critical investigative lens that can reveal irregularities hidden beneath the surface of financial statements. Their methodical approach, combined with verification of supporting documentation and e-discovery, provides a comprehensive strategy for uncovering fraudulent activities and gathering evidence necessary for legal proceedings.

Originally Published 31 May 2024

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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