Footnote disclosures: The story behind the numbers
The footnotes to your company’s financial statements give investors and lenders insight into account balances, accounting practices and potential risk factors — knowledge that’s vital to making well-informed business and investment decisions. Here are four important issues that you should cover in your footnote disclosures.
1. Unreported or contingent liabilities
A company’s balance sheet might not reflect all future obligations. Detailed footnotes may reveal, for example, a potentially damaging lawsuit, an IRS inquiry or an environmental claim.
Footnotes also spell out the details of loan terms, warranties, contingent liabilities and leases. Unscrupulous managers may attempt to downplay liabilities to avoid violating loan agreements or admitting financial problems to stakeholders.
2. Related-party transactions
Companies may employ friends and relatives — or give preferential treatment to, or receive it from, related parties. It’s important that footnotes disclose all related parties with whom the company and its management team conduct business.
For example, say, a dress boutique rents retail space from the owner’s uncle at below-market rents, saving roughly $120,000 each year. If the retailer doesn’t disclose that this favorable related-party deal exists, its lenders may mistakenly believe that the business is more profitable than it really is. When the owner’s uncle unexpectedly dies — and the owner’s cousin, who inherits the real estate, raises the rent — the retailer could fall on hard times and the stakeholders could be blindsided by the undisclosed related-party risk.
3. Accounting changes
Footnotes disclose the nature and justification for a change in accounting principle, as well as how that change affects the financial statements. Valid reasons exist to change an accounting method, such as a regulatory mandate. But dishonest managers also can use accounting changes in, say, depreciation or inventory reporting methods to manipulate financial results.
4. Significant events
Disclosures may forewarn stakeholders that a company recently lost a major customer or will be subject to stricter regulatory oversight in the coming year. Footnotes disclose significant events that could materially impact future earnings or impair business value. But dishonest managers may overlook or downplay significant events to preserve the company’s credit standing.
Too much, too little or just right?
In recent years, the Financial Accounting Standards Board has been eliminating and simplifying footnote disclosures. While disclosure “overload” can be burdensome, it’s important that companies don’t cut back too much. Transparency is key to effective corporate governance.
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