The Conservatism Principle and the Asymmetric Timeliness of Earnings
Posted: 8 Jul 1998
Conservatism is interpreted to mean that accountants more frequently report current "bad news" about future cash flows in contemporaneous earnings than current "good news." Thus, earnings reported under GAAP should be more timely in reporting "bad news" about future cash flows than "good news." This paper, using the firm's stock return as a measure of news, shows that the contemporaneous association between earnings and negative returns is two to five times as large as the contemporaneous association between earnings and positive returns. It is also shown that the greater timeliness of earnings relative to cash flow measures is largely due to a greater sensitivity to concurrent negative returns. This result is consistent with accountants recording accruals conservatively. Another implication of conservatism is that negative earnings surprises are likely to be less persistent than positive earnings surprises, because earnings reports more bad news concurrently than good news, with the latter being spread over several periods. This is shown to be true empirically. It is predicted and found that earnings response coefficients are higher for positive earnings changes than for negative earnings changes, which is consistent with the market correcting for the difference in persistence in conservatively determined earnings. It is also found that the sensitivity of earnings to negative returns has more than quadrupled since 1980, while the sensitivity of earnings to negative returns has declined by two-thirds, suggesting that earnings measurement has become more conservative. Increases in accounting conservatism are found to be correlated with increases in auditor liability, but no causal inferences are drawn.
JEL Classification: M40
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation