Earnings Manipulation for Pros

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating little story today. A pair of Stanford researchers examined half a million earnings reports and concluded that companies routinely adjust their earnings upward. How did they figure this out? It turns out that a favored way of doing this is to use accounting adjustments to boost your earnings per share ever so slightly — say, from 5.4 cents to 5.5 cents, which then gets rounded up to 6 cents. And a difference of a penny a share in the headline earnings number makes a noticeable difference in your stock price:

The authors’ conclusions rest on a simple piece of statistical analysis. When they ran the earnings-per-share numbers down to a 10th of a cent, they found that the number “4” appeared less often in the 10ths place than any other digit, and significantly less often than would be expected by chance. They dub the effect “quadrophobia.”

….In their most intriguing finding, the authors found that companies that later restate earnings or are charged with accounting violations report significantly fewer 4s. The pattern “appears to be a leading indicator of a company that’s going to have an accounting issue,” Mr. Grundfest said.

So here’s your pro investing tip for the day: If you’re thinking of buying stock, check to see if the company has too few threes or fours in the first decimal place of their earnings-per-share numbers over the past few years. If they do, buy the stock! These guys know how to please the analysts. But don’t hold on too long! Eventually they’ll restate and you’ll be screwed. Timing is everything.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.