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methodology should be justified by long-term trends, not short-term needs The fraudulent financial reporting at WorldCom took many forms, but $33 billion of bogus profits was partially due to the reversal of bad debts expense Likewise, capital costs are an area of frequent abuse A company can improve its bottom line by simply deferring expenses by recording them as assets on the balance sheet Between 1989 and 1990, Chambers Development Company, Inc capitalized significant amounts of landfill development costs based on targeted profit margins The aggressive treatment created the illusion of profitability when an SEC accounting revealed that it was indeed losing money A properly implemented policy recognizes a true but conservative estimate of the asset s useful life and limits the types of assets that can be capitalized to large, long lived items such as a new factory, piece of machinery, or information systems True capital costs should be recorded as an asset and depreciated over the productive life of the asset to better match revenues to expenses, but directors serving on an audit committee must make certain that the assets capitalized and the related useful life assumption are both reasonable
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Related-Party Transactions Related parties are entities whose management or operating policies can be controlled or influenced by another party A conflict of interest occurs when an individual s private interest interferes in any way, or even appears to interfere, with the interests of the corporation as a whole 9 Such arrangements might benefit the company and may not be detrimental per se Where conflicts arise, they must be well communicated, managed, and subjected to detailed and unimpeachable oversight to ensure that stockholders benefit from doing business with the related party The board should be able to demonstrate this oversight What is clear is that employees, officers and directors should be prohibited from (1) taking for themselves personally opportunities that are discovered through the use of corporate property, information or position; (2) using corporate property, information, or position for personal gain; and (3) competing with the company10 A board needs to show that the company will not tolerate such actions through words and deeds All executives and directors
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should be polled regarding their knowledge of related party transactions, personal or otherwise Oversight of transactions identified should be reviewed, determination made regarding the benefit to the company, and a disclosure in the notes to the financial statements produced This would be best accomplished by a committee consisting of independent directors to demonstrate unimpeachable due process and reasonable assurance that such transactions are well controlled and monitored Such a process might have revealed the selfserving enrichment of Enron s CFO from managing the special purpose vehicles he created No reasonable director would approve the multimillion dollar payouts experienced where little to no risk was involved for the administrator of these entities
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Complex Products Some companies provide complex financial products, such as structured financial instruments containing derivatives, or use multifaceted hedging strategies that few understand When a star performer produces complex products, few want to challenge this success or reveal that they do not understand how they work In the early 1990s, neither Procter and Gamble nor Gibson Greetings could price complex options sold by Banker s Trust and, therefore, were experiencing unknown yet material losses on their positions It is important that a director insist that management map out complex products or strategies and that the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and the risks of the product or strategy are well understood Importantly, the capability to determine the market value of the product must exist in the company
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Underfunded Defined Benefit Plans Although defined benefit plans are being replaced by defined contribution pensions such as 401(k) plans, there are still many in existence These plans can have a huge effect on a corporation s net income and in some cases, the ability of the company to survive By example, airline companies are declaring bankruptcy and shedding their pension plans, thereby leaving them in government hands This strategy improves an airline s chances of survival, but the government pension
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