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.

John Berger, CEO of Houston-based Sunnova, is this week's Houston Innovators Podcast guest. Courtesy of Sunnova

Houston solar energy exec shines light on company growth and IPO

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 15

It was all about the timing for John Berger, founder and CEO of Sunnova, a Houston-based residential solar energy company.

When he founded his company in 2012 in Houston, solar energy wasn't the trendy sustainability option it is today, but Berger saw the potential for technology within the industry. So, with a lot of perseverance and the right team behind him, he scaled Sunnova through nationwide expansion, billions of money raised, and a debut on the stock market last July — something that also happened with great timing.

About 72 hours after Sunnova went public last July, the Federal Reserve System announced it was going to cut rates. Additionally, Sunnova's IPO occurred ahead of WeWork's failed IPO.

"We went public in a market that still isn't back open again, I think, for IPOs," Berger says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We had pretty good timing when we went out the door."

However great the timing was, Sunnova's success is built on the hard work and skills of the company's employees, Berger explains on the podcast, and now running a public company requires a dynamic leader.

"I really look at myself and how I can change myself," Berger says. "I'm a different CEO today than I was 12 months ago, and hopefully I'll be a different CEO in 12 months, because the company demands it."

In the episode, Berger lifts the curtain on Sunnova's IPO, explains where he sees the solar energy industry headed, how battery storage technology has evolved, and why he's not worried about who ends up in the White House. Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.