New research reveals that companies often “opinion shop” to shape their financial reality. Photo via rice.edu

Firms often have to estimate the “fair value” of their investments, meaning they have to declare what an asset is worth on the market. To avoid the potential for bias and manipulation, companies will use third-party services to provide an objective estimate of their assets’ fair value.

But nothing prevents a company from seeking multiple third-party estimates and choosing whichever one suits their purpose.

In a recent study, Shiva Sivaramakrishnan (Rice Business) and co-authors Minjae Koo (The Chinese University of Hong Kong) and Yuping Zhao (University of Houston) examine two motives for switching third-party evaluators: “opinion shopping” and “objective valuation.”

Firms that opinion shop are looking for a third-party source to make their investments look better on paper. For example, if Service A says an asset is worth $80 — and that means the company would have to take an accounting loss — the company might switch to Service B, which says the asset is worth $90. By using the higher estimate from Service B, the company avoids a loss.

Opinion shopping can be a dangerous practice, both on a macro level and for the specific firms that engage in it. Not only does it reduce the quality of fair value estimates for everyone, it means some company assets are potentially overvalued. And if those assets ever decline in value for real, the company will eventually take a loss.

Moreover, opinion shopping opens the door to managerial opportunism. If assets are valued more highly, managers are likely to receive credit and potentially use that perceived accomplishment to advance their careers.

There are reasons for companies to go the other way. In the hypothetical scenario above, our company might switch from Service B ($90) to Service A ($80) to receive a more accurate and objective estimate. The “objective valuation” motive helps companies meet regulatory requirements and ensure estimates reflect true market value. What’s more, the objective valuation motive helps curb managerial buccaneering.

The study looks at when and why life insurance companies will switch their third-party review service. The team finds that both motives — opinion shopping and objective valuation — are common. Sometimes companies want to better align their fair value estimates with what similar assets are trading for in the market. Other times, they want assets to look better on paper.

Of the two motives, opinion shopping is the more dominant, particularly when they are in conflict with each other. On the whole, evidence suggests that companies switch price sources strategically to inflate estimates and avoid losses, rather than to get more accurate estimates.

The study has implications for investors, regulators and researchers. “Opinion shopping” could be prevalent in non-financial industries, as well — especially public firms with capital market incentives. More disclosure around price sources could improve estimate reliability.

Future research could examine asset valuation practices and motives in other sectors such as banking, real estate and equity investments. Are some industries more prone to opinion shopping than others? What factors make opinion shopping or objective valuation more likely? Are there certain signals or patterns that indicate when a company is opinion shopping versus seeking objectivity?

Answers to these questions could help discern acceptable from unacceptable third-party source switching. And understanding if certain types of companies are more at risk could help regulators and auditors focus their efforts.

The bottom line:

Accurate accounting matters. While external sources are better for measuring the fair value of any given asset, companies can distort the very concept of fair value estimates by changing their source. More rigor, transparency and auditing around price sources could curb manipulation and improve estimate reliability.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Shiva Sivaramakrishnan, the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Accounting at Rice Business.

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

Rice University research finds market outliers at risk of misreporting

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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.

In a recent study, a Rice Business professor found that board members actually need incentives — both short- and long-term — to act in stakeholders' best interests. Getty Images

Rice University research finds executive board members are driven by incentives

Houston voices

If you're a stockholder, you may envision your investment helmed by a benevolent, all-knowing board of directors, sitting around a long finely-grained wooden table, drinking coffee, their heads buried in PowerPoint charts as they labor to plot the best course for the company. Too often, however, you can't take for granted that a company's board will steer it wisely.

Companies choose directors because they offer rich and varied experience in the business world. Many who serve on boards, moreover, are CEOs of other corporations, or have headed big companies in the past. As of October 2018, for example, six of the 11 directors on Walmart's board and eight of 13 on AT&T's board hold CEO or CFO positions in other firms. So it's easy to assume that board members will act in the best interests of stockholders.

But in a recent study, Rice Business professor Shiva Sivaramakrishnan found that board members actually need incentives — both short- and long-term — to act in stakeholders' best interests.

Corporations usually compensate board members with stock options, grants, equity stakes, meeting fees, and cash retainers. How important is such compensation, and what sort of incentives do board members need to perform in the very best interests of a company? Sivaramakrishnan joined co-author George Drymiotes to trace how compensation impacts various aspects of board performance.

Recent literature in corporate governance has already stressed the need to give boards of directors explicit incentives in order to safeguard shareholder welfare. Some observers have even proposed requiring outside board members to hold substantial equity interests. The National Association of Corporate Directors, for example, recommended that boards pay their directors solely with cash or stock, with equity representing a substantial portion of the total, up to 100 percent.

To the extent that directors hold stock in a company, their actions are likely influenced by a variety of long-and short-term incentives. And while the literature has focused mainly on the useful long-term impact of equity awards, the consequences of short-term incentives haven't been as clear. Moreover, according to surveys, most directors view advising as their primary role. But this role also has received little attention.

To scrutinize these issues, the scholars used a simple model, which assumes the board of directors perform three roles: contracting, monitoring and consulting. The board contracts with management to provide productive input that improves a firm's performance. By monitoring management, the board improves the quality of the information conveyed to managers. By serving in a consulting role, the board makes managers more productive, which, in turn, means higher expected firm output.

This model allowed the scholars to better understand the relationship between the board of directors and the company's managers, as well as with shareholders. The former was particularly important to take into account, because conflict between a board and managers is typically unobservable and can be costly.

The results were surprising. Without short-term incentives, the researchers found, boards did not effectively fulfill their multiple roles. Long-term inducements could make a difference, they found, but only in some aspects of board performance.

While board members were better advisors when given long-term motivations, short-term incentives were better motivators for performing well in their other corporate governance roles, according to the research, which tied specific aspects of board compensation to particular board functions.

Restricted equity awards provided the necessary long-term incentives to improve the efficacy of the board's advisory role, the scholars found, but only the short-term incentives, awarding an unrestricted share or a bonus based on short-term performance, motivated conscientious monitoring.

The scholars also examined managerial misconduct. Board monitoring, they concluded, lowered the cost of preventing such wrongdoing — but only if the board had strong short-term incentives in place.

Even at the highest rungs of the corporate ladder, in other words, short-term self-interest is the greatest motivator. Maybe it's not surprising. In the corporate world, acting for one's own benefit is a given — so stockholders need to look more closely at those at the very top. Like everyone else, board directors need occasional brass rings within easy reach to do their best.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Shiva Sivaramakrishnan is the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor in Accounting at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Booming Houston suburb, other Texas towns among the fastest-growing U.S. cities in 2023

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One Houston suburb experienced one of the most rapid growth spurts in the country last year: Fulshear, whose population grew by 25.6 percent, more than 51 times that of the nation’s growth rate of 0.5 percent. The city's population was 42,616 as of July 1, 2023.

According to U.S. Census Bureau's Vintage 2023 Population Estimates, released Thursday, May 16, Fulshear — which lies west of Katy in northwest Fort Bend County - ranked No. 2 on the list of fastest-growing cities with a population of 20,000 or more. It's no wonder iconic Houston restaurants like Molina's Cantina see opportunities there.

The South still dominates the nation's growth, even as America’s Northeast and Midwest cities are rebounding slightly from years of population drops. The census estimates showed 13 of the 15 fastest-growing cities in the U.S. were in the South — eight in Texas alone.

The Texas cities joining Fulshear on the fastest-growing-cities list are:

  • Celina (No. 1) with 26.6 percent growth (42,616 total population)
  • Princeton (No. 3) with 22.3 percent growth (28,027 total population)
  • Anna (No. 4) with 16.9 percent growth (27,501 total population)
  • Georgetown (No. 8) with 10.6 percent growth (96,312 total population)
  • Prosper (No. 9) with 10.5 percent growth (41,660 total population)
  • Forney (No. 10) with 10.4 percent growth (35,470 total population)
  • Kyle (No. 11) with 9 percent growth (62,548 total population)

Texas trends
San Antonio saw the biggest growth spurt in the United States last year, numbers-wise. The Alamo City added about 22,000 residents. San Antonio now has nearly 1.5 million people, making it the the seventh largest city in the U.S. and second largest in Texas.

Its population boom was followed by those of other Southern cities, including Fort Worth; Charlotte, North Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; and Port St. Lucie, Florida.

Fast-growing Fort Worth (978,000) surpassed San Jose, California (970,000) to become the 12th most populous city in the country.

Meanwhile, population slowed in the Austin area. Jacksonville, Florida (986,000), outpaced Austin (980,000), pushing the Texas capital to 11th largest city in the U.S. (barely ahead of Fort Worth).

Population growth in Georgetown, outside Austin, slowed by more than one-fourth its population growth in 2022, the report says, from 14.4 percent to 10.6 percent. It's the same story in the Central Texas city of Kyle, whose population growth decreased by nearly 2 percent to 9 percent in 2023.

Most populated cities
New York City with nearly 8.3 million people remained the nation's largest city in population as of July 1, 2023. Los Angeles was second at close to 4 million residents, while Chicago was third at 2.7 million and Houston was fourth at 2.3 million residents.

The 15 populous U.S. cities in 2023 were:

  1. New York, New York (8.3 million)
  2. Los Angeles, California (4 million)
  3. Chicago, Illinois (2.7 million)
  4. Houston, Texas (2.3 million)
  5. Phoenix, Arizona (1.7 million)
  6. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1.6 million)
  7. San Antonio (1.5 million)
  8. San Diego, California (1.4 million)
  9. Dallas (1.3 million)
  10. Jacksonville, Florida (986,000)
  11. Austin (980,000)
  12. Fort Worth (978,000)
  13. San Jose (970,000)
  14. Columbus, Ohio (913,000)
  15. Charlotte, North Carolina (911,000)

Modest reversals of population declines were seen last year in large cities in the nation's Northeast and Midwest. Detroit, for example, which grew for the first time in decades, had seen an exodus of people since the 1950s. Yet the estimates released Thursday show the population of Michigan’s largest city rose by just 1,852 people from 631,366 in 2022 to 633,218 last year.

It's a milestone for Detroit, which had 1.8 million residents in the 1950s only to see its population dwindle and then plummet through suburban white flight, a 1967 race riot, the migration to the suburbs by many of the Black middle class and the national economic downturn that foreshadowed the city's 2013 bankruptcy filing.

Three of the largest cities in the U.S. that had been bleeding residents this decade staunched those departures somewhat. New York City, which has lost almost 550,000 residents this decade so far, saw a drop of only 77,000 residents last year, about three-fifths the numbers from the previous year.

Los Angeles lost only 1,800 people last year, following a decline in the 2020s of almost 78,000 residents. Chicago, which has lost almost 82,000 people this decade, only had a population drop of 8,200 residents last year.

And San Francisco, which has lost a greater share of residents this decade than any other big city — almost 7.5 percent — actually grew by more than 1,200 residents last year.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

How this Houston clean energy entrepreneur is navigating geothermal's hype to 100x business growth

houston innovators podcast Episode 237

Geothermal energy has been growing in recognition as a major player in the clean energy mix, and while many might think of it as a new climatetech solution, Tim Latimer, co-founder and CEO of Fervo Energy, knows better.

"Every overnight success is a decade in the making, and I think Fervo, fortunately — and geothermal as a whole — has become much more high profile recently as people realize that it can be a tremendous solution to the challenges that our energy sector and climate are facing," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

In fact, Latimer has been bullish on geothermal as a clean energy source since he quit his job as a drilling engineer in oil and gas to pursue a dual degree program — MBA and master's in earth sciences — at Stanford University. He had decided that, with the reluctance of incumbent energy companies to try new technologies, he was going to figure out how to start his own company. Through the Stanford program and Activate, a nonprofit hardtech program that funded two years of Fervo's research and development, Latimer did just that.

And the bet has more than paid off. Since officially launching in 2017, Fervo Energy has raised over $430 million — most recently collecting a $244 million series D round. Even more impressive to Latimer — his idea for drilling horizontal wells works. The company celebrated a successful pilot program last summer by achieving continuous carbon-free geothermal energy production with Project Red, a northern Nevada site made possible through a 2021 partnership with Google.

Next up for Fervo is growing and scaling at around a 100x pace. While Project Red included three wells, Project Cape, a Southwest Utah site, will include around 100 wells with significantly reduced drilling cost and an estimated 2026 delivery. Latimer says there are a dozen other projects like Project Cape that are in the works.

"It's a huge ramp up in our drilling, construction, and powerplant programs from our pilot project, but we've already had tremendous success there," Latimer says of Project Cape. "We think our technology has a really bright future."

While Latimer looks ahead to the rapid growth of Fervo Energy, he says it's all due to the foundation he put in place for the company, which has a culture built on the motto, "Build things that last."

“You’re not going to get somewhere that really changes the world by cutting corners and taking short steps. And, if you want to move the needle on something as complicated as the global energy system that has been built up over hundreds of years with trillions of dollars of capital invested in it – you’re not going to do it overnight," he says on the show. "We’re all in this for the long haul together."

Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

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Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.