Thursday, February 12, 2009

Early Warning Signs at Satyam

We mentioned the absence of early warning signs in our earlier post on Satyam – especially the lack of a gap between earnings and cash flow. It turns out there were a few. We can classify them either as behavioral or financial.

Behavioral Warning Signs
Behavioral early warning signs are actions, things key insiders and important outsiders do that signal trouble. In Satyam’s case, the first occurred last December 16, when Satyam agreed to acquire - without proper shareholder approval and at an inflated price - two struggling companies controlled by Chairman Ramalinga Raju’s family.

Then on December 23, the World Bank‘s barred Satyam from doing business with it for eight years for providing “improper benefits to bank staff” in exchange for contracts and providing a “lack of documentation” on invoices. Right after that, four of the company’s six independent directors resigned, another bad sign.

On December 26, Merrill Lynch signed on as advisor, began its “due diligence” research on Satyam, and quit the project after just ten days. Their reason was that, “In the course of our engagement, we came to understand that there were material accounting irregularities.”

This barrage of bad news was a powerful sign that something was very wrong at Satyam. Unfortunately, it came too quickly to be of much use. Raju sent his confession to the board on January 7, 2009, the day after Merrill Lynch mentioned problems with Satyam’s accounting.

Financial Warning Signs
Financial early warning signs are problem indicators based on financial statement analysis. Analysts look for inconsistent trends in related accounts. For instance, a gap between the trend in earnings and the trend in cash flow suggests overstated revenues or understated expenses.

In Satyam’s case, there is a puzzling difference between the trend in the reserve for uncollectable accounts receivable and the trend in the amount of time it takes the company to collect its accounts. In 2006 the provision for doubtful accounts was 8.5% of accounts receivable, in 2007 it fell to 6.6%, and in 2008 in was only 6.0%. Yet over that same span of time, the payments on those accounts began to slow down, as days receivables grew from 89 in 2006 to 101 in 2007 and 103 in 2008.

If the quality of receivables was declining, why was Satyam taking lower provisions? Perhaps to understate expenses. If the quality of receivables was improving, why were they taking so much longer to collect? Perhaps because Satyam was overstating revenues.

The Limits of Early Warnings
Early warning signs are far from perfect. They’re not definite. They can only suggest something’s wrong; they can’t prove it. They’re not precise. They can’t tell you how big the misstatement is.

But taken together, the behavioral and financial warning signs can alert you to an increase in reporting risk. Then you can begin to watch the company more closely, review your exposures, and check your legal agreements. You can be prepared to reduce your risk in case the worst happens and, like Satyam, the company ends up actually committing financial fraud.

1 comment:

Bobby said...

Profit is vanity and cash is sanity. Understand where cash is generated from and where its going to. If your operations are not cash generative, either (i) your cash balances will decrease (eventually leading to a liquidity crisis) or (ii) you will be selling assets or raising debt (unless investors are prepared to invest more equity), both of which are not sustainable in the longer term.