Fourth Quarter Reversals in Earnings Changes and Earnings Management
54 Pages Posted: 5 May 2002
Date Written: April 2002
This paper investigates potential cases of earnings management by observing the pattern of quarterly earnings changes. We identify firms for which the sign of (seasonal) earnings changes observed in interim quarters reverses in the fourth quarter. We hypothesize that a firm performing poorly in interim quarters may attempt to increase earnings of the fourth quarter to achieve a desired annual earnings target, while a firm performing well in interim quarters may attempt to decrease earnings of the fourth quarter to build "reserves" for the future. Our results show that reversal of earnings changes in the fourth quarter is a common phenomenon and its occurrence is greater than would be expected by chance. Other indicators of earnings management, such as the size and direction of changes in fourth quarter accruals, reversals in subsequent earnings performance, and the use of special items in the income statement, suggest that firms with earnings reversals are more likely to have managed earnings than a control sample of nonreversal firms. Our results also indicate that the reversal firms may have debt-contracting and political costs-related incentives to manage earnings and a significant percentage of them may manage earnings to avoid reporting a decrease in annual earnings. Capital market participants and financial analysts both appear to attach lower credibility to earnings reported by the reversal samples. Our collective evidence leads us to suspect that fourth quarter reversals reflect earnings management behavior rather than some other phenomena, such as mean reversion of earnings or fourth quarter settling up.
JEL Classification: M41
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation