The COVID-19 pandemic has often made the due diligence process for business acquisitions more complex and time-consuming. But if you’re buying a company, it’s critical to dedicate your full attention to this part of the M&A process — not only to confirm that the selling business is as valuable as you believe it to be, but to protect against fraud. Plan early to engage a fraud expert to review financial statements and other documents for signs that you could be dealing with a dishonest seller.
Subtle warning signs
When reviewing a seller’s financial statements, forensic experts look for subtle warning signs of fraud. These include excess inventory, a large number of write-offs, an unusually high number of voided discounts for returns, insufficient documentation of sales and increased purchases from new vendors. Another suspicious sign is increased accounts payable and receivable combined with dropping or stagnant revenues and income.
Fishy revenue, cash flow and expense numbers and unreasonable-seeming growth projections warrant further investigation to determine whether financial statements represent fraud or they’re evidence of unintentional errors or mismanagement. The latter is common in smaller companies that don’t have their statements audited by outside experts or that may not have adequate internal financial expertise.
To determine whether unusual income numbers indicate systematic manipulation, experts often consider whether owners or executives had the opportunity to commit fraud. A lack of solid internal controls makes financial statement fraud more likely. Regulatory disapproval, customer complaints and suspicious supplier relationships can also raise red flags. If warranted, a forensic expert may perform background checks on your target company’s principals.
It’s important to note that some accounting practices adopted to present a business in the best light may be perfectly legal. However, if your expert finds evidence of intentional fraud — particularly at the executive level — you’ll probably want to rescind your acquisition offer. In less serious cases, you may simply need to make purchase price adjustments or even change the deal’s structure.
An indemnification clause written into the purchase agreement can protect you if a seller lies about matters that affect your acquisition, such as fraud. But negotiating these clauses can be tricky since sellers tend to push for a narrow definition of “fraud” and for limits on liability. The fact remains that if a seller has committed fraud, it’s better to uncover it before the M&A transaction goes through.
Contact us with your questions about M&A fraud and for help evaluating your potential business acquisition.
© 2021 Covenant CPA
Management overrides of internal controls can make your company more vulnerable to fraud. This is true even when managers have innocent intentions — for example, they don’t feel they have time to follow proper accounts payable procedures because a vendor is requesting immediate payment. Your company is at even higher risk of fraud losses if a senior manager intentionally ignores the rules to manipulate financial statements.
Management overrides of financial controls can be difficult to detect. However, there are several warning signs that a manager isn’t fully adhering to the policies and procedures your organization has adopted. For instance, a manager may fail to call attention to business risks or dispute an auditor’s findings regarding his or her department. A senior manager may be unwilling to discuss issues that could require financial adjustments or insist on releasing overly optimistic reports on current or future performance.
Such behavior doesn’t prove that fraud is occurring. However, it suggests that you need to improve or open new paths of communication and consider retraining managers on the importance of internal controls. If you do suspect fraud, you must be willing to investigate — regardless of whom it might implicate.
To prevent management overrides, build a culture that encourages honesty and supports employees who speak up when they suspect something’s wrong. Think about whether your managers experience pressure that unwittingly encourages fraud. For example, if your industry has seen increased business failures, some employees may think they need to keep profits at specified levels. They might also feel stressed if their compensation depends on achieving stretch goals for cash flow or operating results.
Employees a level or two below senior managers are most likely to observe management overrides. Give them access to a confidential hotline and they’re more likely to report fraud before it seriously harms your business. And if you extend your hotline to vendors and customers, you’ll increase your chances for learning of improprieties early.
A difficult year
This year has been challenging for businesses of every size and in every sector. With many employees working from home and some companies downsizing, managers may be tempted to take short cuts they wouldn’t under ordinary circumstances. Or worse, managers with access to financial statements may feel pressure to fudge numbers to improve your company’s public profile or boost their own compensation. We can help identify flaws in your fraud-prevention program and design policies that even those bent on fraud will have trouble overriding.
© 2020 Covenant CPA