FlyTitle: Corporate fraud

The crisis will expose a decade’s worth of swindling and aggressive accounting

这场危机将让十年来风行的企业造假和激进会计操作暴露无遗【新冠报道】

经济学人双语版-谁的泳裤掉了? Who’s lost their trunks?

WHEN BERNIE MADOFF owned up to a $65bn Ponzi scheme in December 2008, it was not out of guilt. He knew the game was up. Three months earlier Lehman Brothers had imploded. The market meltdown sent clients clamouring to withdraw from his funds, leaving them depleted with many investors still unpaid. American regulators had not spotted the fraud, despite a tip-off years earlier. It was not them that did for Mr Madoff, but recession.

当伯尼·麦道夫(Bernie Madoff)在2008年12月承认自己制造了一起650亿美元的旁氏骗局时,他并不是出于愧疚。他知道游戏玩完了。三个月前,雷曼兄弟破产。市场崩盘导致客户吵嚷着要撤资,他的基金已经被掏空,即使还有许多投资者没得到偿付。美国监管机构几年前就接到过举报,却没有发现这宗骗局。让麦道夫完蛋的不是监管机构,而是经济衰退。

Booms help fraudsters paper over cracks in their accounts, from fictitious investment returns to exaggerated sales. Slowdowns rip the covering off. As Baruch Lev, an accounting professor at New York University, puts it, “In good times everyone looks good, and the market punishes you harshly for not keeping up.” Many big book-cooking scandals of the past 20 years emerged in downturns. A decade before the crisis of 2007-09 the dotcom crash exposed accounting sins at Enron and WorldCom perpetrated in the go-go late 1990s. Both firms went bust soon after. As Warren Buffett, a revered investor, once put it: “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” This time, thanks to a pandemic, the water has whooshed away at record speed.

经济繁荣帮助欺诈者掩盖了诸如虚假投资回报、夸大销售额等各种账目问题。经济衰退扒掉了这层遮羞布。纽约大学的会计学教授巴鲁克·勒夫(Baruch Lev)说:“年景好的时候,所有人看上去都不错,你若跟不上形势,市场会狠狠罚你。”过去20年里,许多重大的假账丑闻都是在衰退期曝光。在2007至2009年金融危机爆发的十年前,互联网泡沫破裂让安然(Enron)和世通(WorldCom)在上世纪90年代末经济繁荣期的会计造假行为浮出水面。不久后两家公司双双破产。正如备受尊崇的投资家沃伦·巴菲特所说的:“只有退潮时才知道谁在裸泳。”这次,一场大流行病让潮水以创纪录的速度退去。

Hell and low water

浮出水面

Much of the swimwear was already threadbare: a borrowing binge has strained many corporate balance-sheets. Some dirty secrets are beginning to come out. Take Luckin Coffee, which had expanded to take on Starbucks in China, attracting big-name investors like BlackRock and Singapore’s sovereign-wealth fund. On April 2nd the Nasdaq-listed Chinese chain announced an ongoing internal probe amid allegations that its chief operating officer and other employees may have fabricated over 2bn yuan ($280m) in sales. On April 14th Citron Research, a short-seller, accused GSX, a Chinese online-tutoring firm listed in New York, of inflating last year’s sales. In a statement GSX denied the allegations and said Citron’s report was misleading and “full of subjective maliciousness”.

不少人的泳衣本已破烂不堪——借贷无度已经让很多公司的资产负债表不堪重负。一些肮脏的秘密勾当开始浮出水面。比如瑞幸咖啡,它在中国飞速扩张,欲与星巴克一争高下,吸引了贝莱德集团(BlackRock)和新加坡主权财富基金等著名投资者。4月2日,面对有关它的首席运营官和其他员工可能伪造了20多亿元(2.8亿美元)销售额的指控,这家在纳斯达克上市的中国连锁企业声称自己正在进行内部调查。4月14日,沽空机构香橼(Citron Research)指控在纽约上市的中国在线培训公司“跟谁学”夸大了去年的销售额。跟谁学在一份声明中否认了这些指控,并称香橼的报告具有误导性,“充满了主观恶意”。

These revelations have revived fears over the flaky corporate governance of Chinese firms listed on foreign exchanges, whose audits, conducted at home, China’s government makes it hard for outsiders to inspect. A gaggle of fraud-hunters like Citron and Muddy Waters, which outed Luckin, claimed numerous scalps after the first wave of such listings a decade ago. This time they are looking beyond China.

这些揭露事件让人们再度开始担忧在海外上市的中国企业的治理是否可靠。这些企业的审计在中国国内完成,中国政府让外界很难从旁查核。10年前第一波这样的上市潮之后,一些打假公司收获颇丰,比如香橼,还有揭露了瑞幸的浑水(Muddy Waters)。这一次,它们搜寻的目光投向了中国以外的地方。

Blue Orca Capital, an Asia-focused fund targeting corporate “zeros”, expects opportunities to pop up in other emerging markets, Europe and America. “My entire career has been in a bull market,” says its founder, Soren Aandahl. “This is exciting.” Mr Aandahl is eyeing any firms with discrepancies between the amount of capital they need to raise and the cash their accounts say they are generating. Others are focusing on industries hit hardest by the pandemic, such as travel, entertainment and property.

杀人鲸资本(Blue Orca Capital)是一家专注于亚洲的基金,主要针对企业的“零息债券”。它预期机会将在其他新兴市场、欧洲和美国出现。“我的整个职业生涯都处于牛市,”创始人索伦·安达尔(Soren Aandahl)说,“眼下真令人兴奋。”现在,只要哪家公司需要募集的资金与它账目显示的收入之间有出入,那它就是安达尔的目标。其他打假公司则把重点放在受这场大流行病打击最为严重的行业,比如旅游、娱乐和房地产等。

Only a small minority of firms resort to outright fraud. Far more prettify profit-and-loss statements with accounting wheezes that fall in a grey area. This accounts for much of what John Kenneth Galbraith, an economist, called “the bezzle” and “psychic wealth”: gains that appear real but prove illusory.

明目张胆造假的公司只是少数。绝大多数公司是用一些属于灰色地带的会计把戏来美化自己的损益表。这种做法基本上就是经济学家约翰·肯尼斯·加尔布雷斯(John Kenneth Galbraith)所说的“占款”(the bezzle)和“心理财富”:看似真实、实则虚幻的收益。

In the bull market startups became masters of conjuring up novel metrics that flatter performance. WeWork’s “community-adjusted” earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) transformed a hefty loss for 2018 under Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) into a profit. Illegal? No. A red flag? Absolutely. Many investors turned a blind eye because they bought into what Mr Aandahl calls “the myth in the shareholder list”: all would be well if other high-profile backers were on board (as with Luckin).

在牛市中,创业公司成了编造各种新奇指标来美化业绩的高手。如果按照公认会计准则(GAAP),WeWork在2018年严重亏损,而它却通过“社区调整后”EBITDA(扣除利息、税项、折旧及摊销前的盈利)把亏损变成了盈利。这违法吗?没有。是危险信号吗?绝对是。很多投资者对此视而不见,因为他们押注的是安达尔所说的“股东名单神话”,即如果其他知名投资者也在董事会里(就像瑞幸那样),那么一切都会安然无恙。

Non-GAAP adjustments have spread like wildfire through corporate accounts, making it harder to discern what numbers reflect a firm’s true financial position. The average number of non-GAAP measures used in filings by companies in the S&P 500 index has increased from 2.5 to 7.5 in the past 20 years, according to PwC, a consultancy. In credit agreements analysed by Zion Research Group, the definition of EBITDA ranges from 75 words to over 2,200. GAAP is far from perfect, but some of the divergence from it has clearly been designed to pull wool over investors’ eyes. One study found that non-GAAP profits were, on average, 15% higher than GAAP profits.

非GAAP调整已经如野火般在公司账目中蔓延,这让人们更加难以辨别哪些数字反映了公司真实的财务状况。咨询公司普华永道的数据显示,在过去20年里,标准普尔500指数公司在财报中使用的非GAAP指标的平均数已经从2.5增加到了7.5。在Zion Research Group分析的信贷协定中,EBITDA的释义从75个词到2200多个词不等。GAAP还远不够完美,但与之相左的一些做法显然是用来蒙蔽投资者的。一项研究发现,非GAAP方法下的利润比GAAP平均高出15%。

Playing around with earnings and revenue-recognition metrics is this generation’s equivalent of dotcoms using bots and other tricks to boost “eyeballs” 20 years ago, says Jules Kroll of K2 Intelligence, the doyen of corporate sleuths. “When an area is hot to the point of overheated, there is a growing temptation to juice the numbers.” In an ominous sign, SoftBank, a Japanese technology conglomerate which bet big on WeWork and dozens of other startups, said last month that it expects an operating loss of ¥1.4trn ($12.5bn) in its last fiscal year.

企业侦探界的鼻祖K2 Intelligence的朱尔斯·克罗尔(Jules Kroll)表示,20年前互联网公司利用自动程序和其他花招来赚“眼球”,而现在这一代人则在收益和收入确认指标上动手脚。“当一个地区的经济增长过热时,给数据注水的诱惑力就会增大。”上个月,在WeWork和其他几十家创业公司押下重注的日本科技集团软银表示,预计上一财年的营运亏损将达到1.4万亿日元(125亿美元),这是个不祥之兆。

Besides exposing old schemes, the pandemic is likely to give rise to new ones. When economic survival is threatened, the line separating what is acceptable and unacceptable when booking revenues or making market disclosures can be blurred. Mr Kroll reckons that “amid such massive dislocation, some will inevitably cheat.”

除了让老把戏大白于天下,这场大流行病很可能催生出新骗局。当面临生死存亡,在收入记账或向市场披露信息时可接受的做法和不可接受的做法之间的界限会变得模糊。克罗尔认为:“在如此大规模的混乱中,一些公司必然会造假。”

Bruce Dorris, head of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, the world’s largest anti-fraud outfit, says the effects of covid-19 look like “a perfect storm for fraud”. It may engender everything from iffy accounting to stimulus-linked scams as thousands of firms—including bogus applicants—hustle for help. One fraud investigator points to private-equity-owned firms as potential targets. “There are lots of them, they are highly leveraged and they may not qualify for bail-outs because they have deep-pocketed sponsors,” he says. That increases the temptation to resort to unseemly practices. The ebbing tide is likely to reveal plenty of corporate nudity. That will not stop some businesses from taking up naturism.■

全球最大的反欺诈机构美国注册舞弊检查师协会(Association of Certified Fraud Examiners)的负责人布鲁斯·多里斯(Bruce Dorris)表示,新冠肺炎的影响看上去像“一场欺诈的完美风暴”。当成千上万的公司——其中不乏假冒的申请者——争相申请援助时,可能会引发从可疑账目到与经济刺激政策相关的造假等各种各样的问题。一位反造假调查人员指出,私募股权持有的公司是潜在的调查对象。“它们数量众多,杠杆率高,而且因为有财大气粗的投资者,可能不符合救济条件。”他表示。这更会诱使它们去走歪门邪道。潮水逐渐退去,很多裸泳的企业很可能会原形毕露。但这并不会阻止一些企业加入裸泳大军。