A new working paper (abstract; PDF) by Tanja Artiga Gonzalez, Markus Schmid, and David Yermack looks for the telltale signs of corporate fraud. The paper is called “Smokescreen: How Managers Behave When They Have Something To Hide”:
We study financial reporting and corporate governance in 216 U.S. companies accused of price fixing by antitrust authorities. We document a range of strategies used by these firms when reporting financial results, including frequent earnings smoothing, segment reclassification, and restatements. In corporate governance, cartel firms favor outside directors who are likely to be inattentive monitors due to their status as foreign or “busy.” When directors resign, they are often not replaced, and new auditors are rarely engaged. Cartel managers exercise their stock options faster than managers of other firms. While our results are based only upon firms engaged in price fixing, we expect that they should apply generally to all companies in which managers seek to conceal poor performance or personal wrongdoing.
The authors are wise to note that these findings aren’t necessarily generalizable, and it is also worth wondering if this method could be applied prophylactically to identify fraud. Note: Yermack is the same man who brought us “Tailspotting: How Disclosure, Stock Prices and Volatility Change When CEOs Fly to Their Vacation Homes.”