Most audit reports on financial statements give the business a clean bill of health, or a clean opinion. At the other end of the spectrum, the auditor may state that the financial statements are misleading and should not be relied upon. This negative audit report is called an adverse opinion. That’s the big stick that auditors carry.
Auditors have the power to give an adverse opinion and no business wants that. The threat of an adverse opinion almost always motivates a business to give way to the auditor and change its accounting or disclosure practices in order to avoid getting the kiss of death of an adverse opinion.
An adverse audit opinion says that the financial statements of the business are misleading. The SEC does not tolerate adverse opinions by auditors of public businesses; it would suspend trading in a company’s stock share if the company received an adverse opinion from its CPA auditor.
One modification to an auditor’s report is very serious – when the CPA firm says that it has substantial doubts about the capability of the business to continue as a going concern. A going concern is a business that has sufficient financial wherewithal and momentum to continue its normal operations into the foreseeable future and would be able to absorb a bad turn of events without having to default on its liabilities.
A going concern does not face an imminent financial crisis or any pressing financial emergency. A business could be under some financial distress but overall still be judged a going concern. Unless there is evidence to the contrary, the CPA auditor assumes that the business is a going concern. If an auditor has serious concerns about whether the business is a going concern, these doubts are spelled out in the auditor’s report.
Is there any wonder as to why business owners petrified by the dreaded audit? Both SEC and IRS are vested with tremendous power over your public or private business; and a report or ruling by one or the other is enough to render any business – that is the subject of one of their audits – non-existent, if that business fails to conform with certain acceptable accounting principles.
If a business breaks the rules of accounting and ethics, it can be liable for legal sanctions against it. It can deliberately deceive its investors and lenders with false or misleading numbers in its financial report. That’s where audits come in. Audits are one way to keep misleading financial reporting to a minimum. CPA auditors are like highway patrol officers who enforce traffic laws and issue tickets to keep speeding to a minimum. An audit exam can uncover problems that the business was not aware of.
After completing an audit examination, the CPA prepares a short report stating that the business has prepared its financial statements, according to generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), or where it has not. All businesses that are publicly traded are required to have annual audits by independent CPAs. Those companies whose stocks are listed on the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq must be audited by outside CPA firms. For a publicly traded company, the expense of conducting an annual audit is the cost of doing business; it’s the price a company pays for going into public markets for its capital and for having its shares traded in the public venue.
Although federal law doesn’t require audits for private businesses, banks and other lenders making loans to private businesses may insist on audited financial statements. If the lenders don’t require audited statements, a business’ owners have to decide whether an audit is a good investment.
Instead of an audit, which they can’t really afford, many smaller businesses have an outside CPA come in on a regular basis to look over their accounting methods and give advice on their financial reporting. But unless a CPA has done an audit, he or she has to be very careful not to express an opinion of the external financial statements. Without a careful examination of the evidence supporting the amounts reported in the financial statements, the CPA is in no position to give an opinion on the financial statements prepared from the accounts of the business.
Accounting fraud is a deliberate and improper manipulation of the recording of sales revenue and/or expenses in order to make a company’s profit performance appear better than it actually is. Some things that companies do that can constitute fraud are:
Not listing prepaid expenses or other incidental assets
Not showing certain classifications of current assets and/or liabilities
Collapsing short- and long-term debt into one amount.
Over-recording sales revenue is the most common technique of accounting fraud. A business may ship products to customers that they haven’t ordered, knowing that those customers will return the products after the end of the year. Until the returns are made, the business records the shipments as if they were actual sales. Or a business may engage in channel stuffing.
Channel stuffing is when a business delivers products to dealers or final customers that they really don’t want, but such a business makes deals on the side that provide incentives and special privileges if the dealers or customers don’t object to taking premature delivery of the products. A business may also delay recording products that have been returned by customers to avoid recognizing these offsets against sales revenue in the current year.
The other way a business commits accounting fraud is by under-recording expenses, such as not recording depreciation expense. Or a business may choose not to record all of its cost of goods sold expense fore the sales made during a period. This would make the gross margin higher, but the business’s inventory asset would include products that actually are not in inventory because they’ve been delivered to customers.
A business might also choose not to record asset losses that should be recognized, such as uncollectible accounts receivable, or it might not write down inventory under the lower of cost or market rule. A business might also not record the full amount of the liability for an expense, making that liability understated in the company’s balance sheet. Its profit, therefore, would be overstated.