SPECIAL TO THE WEB
ACFE Regent Bruce G. Dubinsky, CFE, CPA, CVA; and Tiffany Gdowik, CFE
“The essence of lying is in deception, not in words.”
— John Ruskin
Extrapolating the words of John Ruskin, a 19th-century British social thinker, I often say, “It’s not what’s on the page that matters; it’s what’s not on the page that matters.” As fraud examiners, we have been taught to gather documents, review information, interview subjects and then draw our conclusions. While that approach will detect the simplest of frauds, it won’t detect the type of complex financial frauds that are increasingly making headline news.
I’ve worked on some of the world’s largest frauds — including the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, Parmalat, Lehman Brothers and International Brotherhood of Teamsters. In the Lehman Brothers case, the company used “accounting gymnastics” to manipulate the company’s financial statements during the 2005-2008 financial meltdown — the most devastating since the Great Depression.
In 2008, Lehman Brothers’ shaky balance sheet and falling profits left the firm in dire financial peril. It desperately needed to create the illusion that it was healthier than it actually was. Lehman used what appeared to be a normal financial instrument in the banking world — a repurchase agreement (a repo) — to book billions of dollars of transactions. A repurchase agreement is a form of short-term borrowing for banks and other dealers typically using government securities. The bank sells the government securities to an investor (many times another bank), usually on an overnight basis, and buys them back the following day. In Lehman’s case, the company did it to exploit an accounting rule that was meant to give principled guidance to determine when a repo was a true short-term financing method versus a sale of a financial instrument. The latter desired treatment as a “sale” allowed Lehman to slyly portray its financial condition as rosy when it wasn’t.
Interestingly, investigators didn’t discover the illusion created by Lehman by looking at what was on the page (i.e. the entries in the accounting system). The accounting entries, which seemed straightforward, generated little to no alarm. The debits and credits were to the proper accounts. The explanation accompanying the entries also seemed normal. In fact, a review by even the most skilled auditor or fraud examiner would, in and of itself, have revealed nothing. Rather, investigators exposed the company’s deceptive behavior by looking at what was literally not on the page. The key to uncovering the ploy was to first obtain an understanding of what Lehman’s financial perils were at that time.
Lehman had unusually high amounts of leverage (debt to finance its assets) on its balance sheet, and the public markets were responding negatively. The company spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to calm the markets during its investor calls. So, the first “red flag” came in the form of a question: Why was Lehman spending so much time focused on de-levering its balance sheets? Its access to public capital was critical to its continued survival. With investor panic running rampant, it had to create the illusion that it wasn't a house of cards but rather a solid financial institution with a sound balance sheet.
So how did Lehman create the delusion? It simply used the chameleon approach: make something that’s really one thing look like something else. Lehman took repos that were really short-term loan transactions and made them look like they were sales of financial product inventory (e.g. U.S. treasuries and certain equities). By knowingly exploiting that U.S. accounting rule and specifically structuring the repos to fail the requisite treatment as a repo financing, Lehman was able to disguise itself as a financially healthier institution.
Read the full article on Fraud-Magazine.com.