Friday, March 15, 2002

Make accountants accountable

The checks and balances that govern the accountants' working are not enforced with any rigour.
Gautam Chikermane
AT RS 50,000 crore, the most valuable company on the Indian stock exchanges is Hindustan Lever. About 2.5 million of its shares are traded every day. There are 131 mutual funds–investing on behalf of hundreds of thousands of investors–that hold this company, of which 111 have it among their top 10 holdings. Together, they have invested almost Rs 2,000 crore in the company. This is aside from over Rs 10,000 crore other investors have invested. Why? Because this MNC has been among the best companies in India. Why do I say that? Consistently good performance– over the past 10 years, its sales have grown at 22 per cent and net profits at 34 per cent per annum. Who says so? The company’s accountants, A.F. Ferguson and Lovelock & Lewes. As a financial journalist, it’s my job to study the balance sheets and profit and loss statements of companies. When I pore over an annual report, I assume that the accountants who have passed the accounts written by the company have checked the numbers, tallied them and presented them so that an investor can make an informed decision to buy or sell the stock; lenders can decide whether the company has the capacity to pay back; and tax authorities can see whether it has paid the taxes due.
But what if Lever’s accountants were wrong? Worse, what if they had been conniving with the management to deliberately misinform, say, by overstating profits so that the share price did not plunge, or understating them and diverting the excess money into the pockets of the directors (and themselves)? Will the Lever stock that has appreciated over 15-fold in the past decade inspire the same loyalty in future? Will it continue to be sought after? Will it continue to be valued higher than peers Procter & Gamble or Nirma, whose PE (price-to-earnings) ratios are 20 to 25 points lower? Will it continue to attract the top talent from business schools and from across corporate India? The recent high-profile debacle of Enron has all the answers.
Column in Outlook Money

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