Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Backstory : Aggressive Accounting

These days I've also been reading The Great Unraveling by Paul Krugman. It is his NYT columns from 2000-2002 mostly about how bad George W. Bush is. Today I was reading his columns about aggressive accounting and corporate governance. There are two things of note.

In 1995, Congress overrode a veto by Bill Clinton to pass the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, which made lawsuits against companies and auditors "that engaged in sharp accounting practices."

In 1997-2000, after-tax profits stalled, but the S&P 500, the profits reported to investors grew 46%. Krugman attributes this to the changes in management theory and the advent of "principal-agent" theory. What's sad is that it is a well-meaning idea where managers' pay depends strongly on stock prices so that they have more accountability. I can see how before it may have seemed like managers were inefficient, maybe sometimes too generous to employees, and maybe out of touch with the needs of the company since they did not have as much invested in their own companies. Unfortunately, tying their compensation to stock prices gives them a big incentive to artificially boost those prices regardless of actual performance. The problem is that the real performance of a company will always be somewhat qualitative. It will always be some kind of combination of factors. Any quantitative measure can always be manipulated. That is something Deming said, too.

We are still trying to deal with the effects of these issues today. Back in 2001 I was still in high school and I had no idea who Paul Krugman was. All these things were happening, but I didn't really know. I just knew that Reaganomics and tax cuts are irresponsible. It is kind of weird to get the back-story now, especially knowing that I was there, too. It is a different sensation from reading about things that happened longer ago or in different countries. I am glad that I think I will have a better understanding of things happening going forward, but it's also a little strange knowing that millions of other people will continue to be unaware and just minding their own business as I was.

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