When we think of investor fraud, many of us will automatically conger images of infamous stories such as Enron and WorldCom. While fraud can be very difficult to identify in foresight, if we adhere to a few fundamental rules, we can substantially reduce our susceptibility to the dangers of financial trickery and mismanagement of fiduciary duty.
Follow the Cash Flow
We have long been proponents of limiting investments to profitable companies. But when people hear the word profit, they automatically think of net earnings. The problem is that net earnings are an accounting figure
and can be subject to manipulation. Cash flow on the other hand, is less subject to misstatement. Often we will see companies that report a history of net profit on the income statement but routinely fail to generate cash flow on the cash flow statement. A significant and prolonged differential between accounting profit and cash flow is an indication of poor earnings quality. While this does not necessarily indicate outright fraud it should be viewed with skepticism.
Invest In What You Understand
The greatest investor of all time, Mr. Warren Buffett, routinely discusses his adherence to the “simple and understandable business” tenant as fundamental and to his investment strategy. He will not invest in any company that he does not fully understand. At times (notably during the dotcom bubble) he has been criticized for missing opportunities, but in the long run his focused discipline has made fools of his critics. More than just the business, it is also important to understand the financial statements. Highly complex financials with nebulous accounting items make it easier for unscrupulous managers to hide facts or inflate figures.
Don’t Overexposure Yourself to Speculative Regions
In the recent past, we have seen fraudulent activities and scandals uncovered in companies whose base of operations are in emerging markets – notably China. There are two issues at work here. One is that in emerging markets, the regulatory framework and oversight has not had as long to develop as it has in the developed world. Secondly, when a company’s operations are located entirely in emerging market, it makes it more difficult for our regulators to monitor them effectively. We are not trying to say that fraudulent activities are exclusive to emerging markets – they absolutely are not. But we do believe that structurally there is a greater chance that fraud can be developed and concealed at a larger magnitude and longer amount of time in the emerging world. For this reason, we strongly suggest that investors confine the majority of their activities to developed regions.
Read the Footnotes
Many investors, and even analysts, confine their analysis strictly to the financial statements (income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statement) and ignore the financial footnotes. However, the financial footnotes, which are typically provided after the financial statements, provide a wide range of information and clues about the assumptions and policies used by management (e.g. revenue recognition, depreciation and amortization policy, treatment of derivatives, off balance sheet items, financial covenants, etc). Understanding the information beneath the headline numbers makes those numbers more meaningful and allows the investor to develop a better comparison amongst companies in the same industry. It is also a little known fact that if a management team is trying to hide a piece of information then they will probably put it in the middle or at the end of a long document. Remember… if these notes are impossible to understand then maybe you should question whether or not this is a company you want to invest in.
Diversify your Stock Holdings
For most typical investors, diversification may be the best defense against fraud. The fact of the matter is that fraud does exist in the world of investing and it can be extremely difficult to uncover. By spreading your capital amongst a group of quality companies that adhere to these principles you substantially reduce your susceptibility to both fraud and poor financial performance. This is not to say that we think investors should over diversify into dozens of companies. Such a strategy could make your portfolio unmanageable. But we do strongly suggest that you hold enough companies so that your overall success does not hinge on one or two individual stocks – no matter how good they may look.