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Rice University research finds market outliers at risk of misreporting

Research shows that some corporate executives skew earnings to influence the market and inflate share price. Photo via Pexels

Say a company called CoolConsumerGoodsCo has just released its quarterly earnings report, revealing significantly higher profits than its consumer goods industry counterparts.

That result might spur analysts to slap a buy rating on the stock and investors to snap up shares. In an ideal world, the market wouldn't have to consider the possibility that the numbers aren't legit — but then again, it's not an ideal world. (Enron, anyone?)

Rice Business professors Brian R. Rountree and Shiva Sivaramakrishnan, along with Andrew B. Jackson at UNSW in Australia, studied what makes business leaders more likely to engage in fraudulent earnings reporting. Specifically, they focused on the relationship between this kind of misrepresentation and the degree to which a company's earnings are in line with the rest of its industry — a variable the researchers term "co-movements."

Many people are familiar with a similar variable, calculated using stock returns often referred to as a company's beta. The authors adapted the stock return beta to corporate earnings to see how a company's earnings move with earnings at the industry level.

The researchers hypothesized that the less in sync a company's earnings are with its industry, the higher the chance a company's leaders will manipulate earnings reports. They started with the well-accepted premise that corporations try to skew earnings reports to influence the market. The primary motive is typically to raise the company's stock price, as when an executive tries to "choose a level of bias" that balances potential fallout of getting caught against the benefits of a higher stock price.

To test their prediction, the professors analyzed a sample of enforcement actions taken by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission against companies for problematic financial reporting from 1970 to 2011 — although they noted that given the SEC's limited resources, the number of enforcement actions probably underestimates the actual amount of earnings manipulation in the market.

Their analysis revealed that firms with low earnings co-movements (meaning their earnings were out of sync with industry peers) were more likely to be accused by the SEC of reporting misdeeds. They concluded that the degree of earnings co-movement determines the probability of earnings manipulation. Put another way, earnings co-movements are a "causal factor" in the chances of earnings manipulations — and to a significant degree. The researchers found that firms who don't co-move with the market are more than 50 percent more likely to face an SEC enforcement action, compared with firms who are perfectly aligned with the market.

The researchers drilled deeper into the data to study whether the odds changed depending on the industry, since past research has indicated that the amount of competition in an industry works to constrain misreporting. That premise seems to hold true, the researchers concluded. In industries with more competitive markets, the impact of low co-movement on earnings manipulation is moderated.

They also studied whether the age of a firm played a part in the likelihood of earnings manipulation. Newer firms often rely more on stock compensation, which could be a motive for manipulating earnings reporting to drive up share price. Indeed, younger firms were more susceptible to misreporting when their earnings were out of whack with the rest of the marketplace.

Every firm faces some risk of misreporting, however. Even for public companies under analyst scrutiny, low co-movement proved to be a driver of earnings manipulation. But companies known for conservative reporting tend to be less likely to exaggerate their earnings, in general; these firms typically recognize losses in a more timely manner, the professors found.

These findings suggest a number of future lines of research. For example: When do executives underreport earnings? And can analyzing patterns related to cash flow reporting help better isolate earnings manipulation?

In the meantime, if you come across a company like CoolConsumerGoodsCo with an earnings report that's widely out of sync with the rest of its industry, you might think twice before rushing to buy in.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Brian R. Rountree, an associate professor of accounting at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, and Shiva Sivaramakrishnan is the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Accounting at Rice Business.

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Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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