It’s Better (and Worse) Than You Think

Nearly half of the finance executives we surveyed report that they still feel pressure from their superiors to use aggressive accounting to make results look better.

It’s been a long two-and-a-half years since Enron’s spectacular collapse. Arthur Andersen has vanished, other success stories of the 1990s have been exposed as frauds, and Congress has passed a big, expensive law to keep it all from happening again.

Now, at long last, prospects are improving. Corporate profits are increasing. CFOs are more optimistic about the economy than they have been in years. And the first wave of scandals is coming to a resolution — Andrew Fastow of Enron has received his sentence, Scott Sullivan of WorldCom has pleaded guilty, and prosecutors are pursuing the CEOs of both companies.

So has life eased for beleaguered finance professionals? The short answer would seem to be no, although there is cause for optimism, according to a survey of 179 finance executives CFO magazine conducted this past March at its annual CFO Rising conference.

Consider the signs of trouble. First, it is alarmingly common for executives to lean on finance employees to “make the numbers work.” Nearly half — 47 percent — report they still feel pressure from their superiors to use aggressive accounting to make results look better. This helps explain how finance executives think about the scandals — respondents identified personal greed, weak boards of directors, and overbearing CEOs as top causes. What is worrisome is that the pressure to make the numbers hasn’t abated much. Of those who have felt pressure in the past, only 38 percent think there is less pressure today than there was three years ago, and 20 percent say there is more.

A second, related worry is that few finance executives have much confidence in the numbers their colleagues are reporting. Only 27 percent say that if they were investing their own money, they would feel “very confident” about the quality and completeness of information available about public companies. (The rest were either “somewhat confident” or “not confident.”) CFOs know better than anyone how companies assemble their numbers — such a lukewarm endorsement should make investors uneasy.

Then there is the toll exacted by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 and heightened regulatory scrutiny. Three-quarters of the respondents report that the scandals have made their jobs harder. In response to a question asking what CFOs would like to say to Fastow, Sullivan, and Mark Swartz one wrote: “Your missteps have tarnished the image of all CFOs and have burdened corporations with unnecessary costs related to Sarbanes-Oxley.”

But every cloud has a silver lining. The upheaval of the past few years may have created more work for the CFO, but it has also brought new prominence. Ninety-eight percent of respondents say the scandals have elevated the profile of corporate finance with CEOs and corporate boards.

And most concede that while costly, the much-loathed Sarbox is doing some good. Seventy-seven percent say the law makes it easier to resist pressure from a superior to misrepresent results. That is positive news. If it’s true that the scandals originated with some overbearing CEOs, then it’s up to ethical finance employees to stand up to them. Greed will not go away, and neither will scandals. But next time, maybe fewer CFOs will feel the need to ask the question that many respondents did on this survey: “What were they thinking?”

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