Corporate Finance

Investors Don’t Buy Corporate Yarn-Spinning

Self-serving, stretch-the-truth comments in earnings reports and press releases backfire most of the time, a study suggests.
David McCannFebruary 27, 2014

All those hours you spend carefully crafting the language of your earnings reports and press releases, aiming to exploit positive results to the fullest and put some pretty makeup on negative ones?

Maybe you shouldn’t bother.

Investors are wise to the subterfuge, according to a scholarly study published in The Accounting Review, a journal of the American Accounting Association.

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Writing about the study in Accounting Today, Michael Cohn notes that companies “typically blame outside factors for negative developments and claim that their own internal initiatives led to positive results.” But that doesn’t mean investors believe the “self-serving attributions.”

According to Cohn’s article, the study shows that market response to such attributions depends largely on two plausibility tests: how the company’s industry peers are doing and how greatly market or industry forces drive a company’s earnings.

Among 94 studied companies over a cumulative 1,790 quarters of results, those with “average positive earnings surprises who made the highest-plausibility attributions had three-day above-market returns of 4.77 percent on average, whereas those that offered the lowest-plausibility reasons actually averaged a slight decline of 0.79 percent.”

Could it be true: might honesty actually be the best policy? An interesting question, in an era when “transparency” is bandied about as a supposed corporate virtue. That’s especially so considering that 57 percent of the company quarters covered in the study were marked by self-serving attributions in earnings reports, press releases or both, according to the study.