The Usefulness of Accounting Estimates for Predicting Cash Flows and Earnings

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The Usefulness of Accounting Estimates for Predicting Cash Flows and Earnings

Baruch Lev* New York University Siyi Li University of Illinois Theodore Sougiannis University of Illinois and ALBA

January, 2009

*

Contact information: Baruch Lev (blev@stern.nyu.edu), Stern School of Business, New York University, New York, NY 10012. The authors are indebted to the editor and reviewers of the Review of Accounting Studies for suggestions and guidance, and to Louis Chan, Ilia Dichev, John Hand, James Ohlson, Shiva Rajgopal, and Stephen Ryan for helpful comments, as well as to participants of seminars at Athens University of Economics and Business, London Business School, Penn State University, Purdue University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Texas at Dallas, Washington University in St. Louis, the joint Columbia–NYU Seminar, the 16th Financial Economics and Accounting Conference, the 2006 AAA FARS Midyear Meeting, and the 2008 AAA Annual Meeting.

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ABSTRACT
Estimates and projections are embedded in most financial statement items. These estimates potentially improve the relevance of financial information by providing managers the means to convey to investors forward-looking, inside information (e.g., on future collections from customers via the bad debt provision). On the other hand, the quality of financial information is compromised by: (i) the increasing difficulty of making reliable forecasts in a fastchanging, often turbulent economy, and (ii) the frequent managerial misuse of estimates to manipulate financial data. Given the ever-increasing prevalence of estimates in accounting data, whether these opposing forces result in an improvement in the quality of financial information or not is among the most fundamental issues in accounting. We examine in this study the contribution of accounting estimates embedded in accruals to the quality of financial information, as reflected by their usefulness in the prediction of enterprise cash flows and earnings. Our extensive out-of-sample tests, reflecting both the statistical and economic significance of estimates, indicate that accounting estimates beyond those in working capital items do not improve the prediction of cash flows. Estimates do, however, improve the prediction of next year’s earnings, though not of subsequent years’ earnings. Our economic significance tests corroborate that accounting estimates do not improve cash flow or earnings prediction. We conclude that the usefulness of accounting estimates to investors is limited, and provide suggestions for improving their usefulness.

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The Usefulness of Accounting Estimates For Predicting Cash Flows and Earnings 1. Introduction

Financial statement information, be it balance sheet items such as net property, plant and equipment, goodwill and other intangibles, accounts receivable and inventories, or key income statement figures, such as revenues, pension expense, in-process R&D, or the recently expensed employee stock options, is largely based on managerial estimates and projections. The economic condition of the enterprise and the consequences of its operations as portrayed by quarterly and annual financial reports are therefore an intricate and ever changing web of facts and conjectures, where the dividing line between the two is largely unknown to information users. With the current move of accounting standard-setters in the U.S. and abroad toward increased fair-value measurement of assets and liabilities, the role of estimates and projections in financial reports will further increase. We ask in this study: what is the effect of the multitude of managerial estimates embedded in accounting data on the usefulness of financial information? straightforward. The answer is far from

On the one hand, estimates/projections are potentially useful to investors

because they are the primary means for managers to convey credibly forward-looking proprietary information to...
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