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THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN LAW SCHOOL
The Law and Economics Workshop
Who Blows the Whistle
on Corporate Fraud?
Adair Morse, Michigan Business School
THURSDAY, December 1, 2005 3:40-5:15
Room 236 Hutchins Hall
Additional hard copies of the paper are available in Room 972LR or available electronically at http://www.law.umich.edu/centersandprograms/olin/workshops.htm
Preliminary and Very Incomplete
WHO BLOWS THE WHISTLE ON CORPORATE FRAUD?
University of Toronto
University of Michigan
Harvard University, University of Chicago, NBER, & CEPR
What control mechanisms are most effective in preventing corporate fraud? To answer this question, we study all reported cases of corporate fraud in companies with more than half a billion dollars in assets between 1996 and 2004. We find that no single mechanism dominates the revelation of fraud. The most important sources of information are employees (13% of the cases), analysts (12%), and newspapers (another 11%). Industry regulators play a small role in whistle blowing but the SEC does not contribute much to the discovery of fraud. Auditors also serve only a minor role, albeit their activity increased after the Enron scandal. Remarkable for their absence are underwriters and banks. Moreover, examining the duration of these improprieties allows us to infer the relative efficiency of these mechanisms. The most efficient external whistleblowers are the analysts (on average they discover a fraud after 395 days). When they fail it takes two years on average for a fraud to be discovered.
*Alexander Dyck thanks the Connaught Fund of the University of Toronto and Luigi Zingales the Stigler Center at the University of Chicago for financial support. We would like to thank Alexander Phung for truly outstanding research assistantship.
The onset of the new millennium coincided with remarkable revelations of corporate
fraud, not only in the United States, but around the world. These frauds are remarkable
not only in their magnitude, but also their duration. For instance, the HealthSouth fraud,
where all 5 former CFOs pleaded guilty to criminal charges surrounding earnings and
asset manipulation of more than $2.5 billion, had been in existence for over ten years. In
the Parmalat case, it appears that fraud persisted throughout the 13 years the company
was public. In the end, not only were the earnings false, but liabilities were 14 billion
euros more than Parmalats official accounts. The magnitude and the duration of these
frauds suggest a systematic failure of many standard mechanisms of control: the board of
directors, the external auditors, the banks, the underwriters, the analysts, and the financial
Fortunately, these extreme examples are rare, especially in the United States.
Nevertheless, more modest and less long-lasting frauds do occur frequently in the U.S.
The fact that these frauds remain limited in size and scope suggests that some control
In this paper we examine which control mechanisms work in an important
dimension of governance exposing improprieties. The better the process for exposing
misdeeds, the more limited will be the extent and impact of corporate frauds, stopping
transgressors before insider misdeeds reach levels of an Enron or a Healthsouth. The
results from this exercise can be used to help limit the extent and impact of corporate
frauds in the United States and to highlight which corporate governance mechanisms
would be most important for other countries to adopt.
Just as the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) studies all airplane accidents,
however minor, to identify ways to prevent failures which might lead to major crashes, in
this paper we assemble a sample that includes major and minor episodes of alleged fraud
to identify which mechanisms bring the alleged fraud into the light. To assemble a
sample that captures the most significant cases of corporate fraud, we start from the
Stanford database of security class actions brought against companies with at least a half
billion in assets between 1996 and 2004. Since in major companies (i.e. companies with
sufficient assets and insurance at stake) any fraud will lead to a security class action
(Choi, Nelson and Pritchard, 2005), we are confident that we have all the (detected) cases
of fraud in the set of large companies. To eliminate alleged frauds that are indeed
frivolous suits we restrict our attention to the period after passage of the Private
Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PSLRA) that was designed to reduce frivolous
suits (e.g., Johnson, Kasznik, and Nelson, 2000; Johnson, Nelson and Pritchard, 2003),
and further restrict our attention to cases that settled for at least $2.5 million, a level of
payment previous studies suggested helps divide frivolous suits from meritorious ones
This sample of frauds allows us to ask a number of questions that probe the
governance process: who blows the whistle on corporate fraud? Why do these actors
blow the whistle when they do? Which whistleblowers act more quickly than others,
lowering the duration of the impropriety? Why do insiders engage in fraud in the first
place? And is this fraud detection process influenced by increased public pressure and
awareness, as occurred after the spectacular downfall of Enron in 2001?
We collect all news articles surrounding the event, as well as the news up to the
settlement or dismissal of the case. By reading allegations, news articles and newswires,
we identify who blew the whistle on the fraud and under what circumstances. We also try
to infer the motivation of the fraud. Finally, we record the duration and the monetary
Analyzing these data, we find that in one quarter of the cases, it is the firm that
reveals the wrongdoing. This generally occurs after a change in companys management
or when the company finds it difficult to keep lying to analysts regarding its losses. Two
thirds of the alleged frauds, however, were identified by actors that are not part of the
internal governance of the firm. The second most important class of whistle blowers is
information intermediaries: analysts (who blow the whistle in 12% of the cases) and
newspapers (another 11%). Third are the employees who blow the whistle in 13% of the
cases. Fourth are regulators, collectively accounting for 14% of cases. The SEC accounts
for just 2% of these cases, while industry regulators account for four times as many cases
(8%). As interesting as these results are in identifying who blew the whistle, perhaps a
more striking result is who did not blow the whistle. Prominent actors in traditional
discussions of governance are completely absent or so trivial as not to matter,;stock
exchange regulators, commercial banks, and reputation intermediaries of lawyers and
underwriters are all noticeably absent from our findings.
Having established these facts behind the uncovering of corporate fraud, we ask
three additional questions. First, why did these actors act when they did? To address this
question we gather information about the context surrounding this decision. We find that
routine earnings announcements are the single greatest trigger factor in the uncovering of
the fraud when faced with disappointing earnings, and lacking a convincing alternative
story, firms can simply admit their misdeeds, accounting for 16% of our observations.
External events also seem to force a revelation of the fraud. A negative operations shock
(16% of cases) such as a product failure or loss of a client may also force the firm to
admit the fraud. Earning announcements and operational failures also appear as
triggering factors for outside whistleblowers, providing motivation and source material
for outside investigations into firm practices and financial imbalances. Added scrutiny
need not be induced by firm announcements; outside scrutiny events (also 16% of cases)
such as due diligence and industry routine investigations also are important in bringing
fraud to light.
Next, how efficient were the various actors? Since all whistleblowers can be
considered competing sources for bringing fraud-limiting news to light, the speed with
which the information is brought to light provides an indication of the relative efficiency
of these different mechanisms. By this measure, analysts and the firm itself are the most
efficient actors in curtailing fraud to durations of just more than a year, significantly less
than the average duration of 1.6 years. When this first line of defense fails, other actors
seem to bring the information to light in similar periods of time, almost 2 years on
Finally, what was the motivation surrounding the frauds?. Capital raising of
multiple sorts, most notably through organic growth or merger/acquisitions accounts for
41% our sample. Smoothing of earnings is second most common, at 17%. Interestingly,