Go with the Flow!

WaterfallAs a fraud examiner and internal auditor, I’ve always been a big fan of the cash flow statement and, if you’re a fraud examiner,  I think you should be too.  For the non-accountants among you, the cash flow statement reveals what happened to the client’s cash during the reporting period. It’s very much like your bank account statement: You have a beginning balance of cash at the start of the month, you deposit your paycheck, you write some checks for your mortgage and groceries, and then you end the month with a new cash balance. This is what a cash flow statement is: simply a beginning balance of cash, plus or minus some cash transactions, to arrive at an ending cash balance.

Another way to view the cash flow statement is as an income statement that is adjusted for non-cash transactions and transactions that have not yet impacted cash. Non-cash transactions are transactions that affect the income statement but will never affect cash. Depreciation is a non-cash transaction that is added back to profits on the cash flow statement since cash is never paid out or collected when an asset is depreciated. The cash flow statement also clarifies transactions that immediately impact cash. A company can make a sale but not collect on it, or incur an expense and not immediately pay for it in cash. These are called accounts receivable and accounts payable, respectively. Revenues that are earned but not received and expenses that are incurred but not paid would show up on the income statement, but not on the cash flow statement.  So the formula for the statement is simply …

Beginning Cash Balance
+I- Net Cash Flows from Operating Activities
+I- Net Cash Flows from Investing Activities
+I- Net Cash Flows from Financing Activities
= Ending Cash Balance

There are two methods of reporting cash flows from operations; in the direct method, the sources of operating cash flows are listed along with the uses of operating cash flows, with the difference between them being the net cash flow from operating activities.  In contrast, the indirect method reconciles net income per the income statement with net cash flows from operating activities; that is, accrual-basis net income is adjusted for non-cash revenues and expenses to arrive at net cash flows from operations.  The net cash flows from operating activities is the same amount regardless of which method is used. The indirect method is usually easier to compute and provides a comparison of the company’s operating results under the accrual and cash methods of accounting. As a result, most companies choose to use the indirect method, but either method is acceptable.

So what does all  this provide as a tool for the fraud examiner?  Simply, the cash flow statement provides any CFE with lots of neat information for further analysis in a very compact form.  First of all, the statement tells you what the company’s cash receipts and cash payments were for the period. Remember that it’s unlike the income statement in that the income statement takes into account all revenue and expense transactions, whether or not they affected cash. The cash flow statement only considers transactions that involve cash.

The cash flow statement divides the company’s cash transactions into three categories:

  • Operating activities, which include all cash received and paid out in connection with the company’s normal business operations, such as cash received from customers and funds paid to vendors. This category essentially encompasses any cash transactions that affect items on the income statement.
  • Investing activities, which are cash flows related to the sale or purchase of non-current assets, such as fixed assets, intangible assets, and investments. This category generally covers those cash transactions that affect the asset side of the balance sheet.
  • Financing activities, which are all cash inflows and outflows pertaining to the company’s debt and equity financing. Inflows include the proceeds received from issuing stocks and bonds and from borrowing money from a bank. Outflows include debt repayments and cash dividends paid to shareholders. In general, this category includes the cash transactions that affect the liabilities and owners’ equity side of the balance sheet.

In a perfect world, a company should only need loans when it has a timing problem between collecting and spending money or when it’s expanding. However, if a company expends more money than it will ever make, it will eventually go out of business. This is where the cash flow statement is so useful to the fraud examiner. You will want to get an idea of the cash flow necessary to run the business so that you will be able to tell whether the company is generating enough cash from operations to continue to do business. Chronic lack of cash is a red flag directly related to the motivation for many frauds. The examiner can also evaluate the relationship between total cash generated from financing and investing activities and the amount generated by operating activities.

Some things you will want to note from the cash flow statement in connection with any suspected financial fraud:

  • Does the company have heavy demands on its operating cash each period?
  • Do the inflows equal or exceed the outflows?
  • Is the cash balance increasing or decreasing over time?
  • Is the company making smart decisions about sources and uses of cash given its apparent financial condition?

This is information pertinent to the investigation of a wide range of fraud scenarios, the successful investigation of which involves different data than that commonly available in the income statement.  The income statement alone does not reveal a complete picture of the company’s financial health, necessary for a full investigation of many types of fraud. Evaluating income and cash flows includes considering the timing of items, such as collections of accounts receivable. In the end, a company might have a fabulous looking income statement, but might not have any cash available for operations. This may occur because the revenues recorded on the income statement have not been collected. Remember, as part of doing business, companies usually allow customers to make purchases on credit; this means those companies will collect the cash subsequent to the actual recording of the revenues.  For example, a small high-tech manufacturer might have a healthy looking profit on its income statement, but not be able to pay its employees’ salaries. However, the entrepreneurial owners of the company expect all is well, since they think the net income on the income statement to equal the amount of cash in the company’s bank account. But, as is often the case, there’s a timing difference between when the company records a sale and when it actually receives the cash from its customers. As a result, the cash balance seldom, if ever, will match the income on the income statement.  Other transactions – such as accrued or prepaid expenses, depreciation, and inventory purchases – will also cause a disparity between an organization’s net income and its net cash flows.

The statement of cash flows represents a trove of invaluable information that can cast light on virtually every aspect of a client’s financial health and, thus inform any fraud investigation.  Use it to your advantage!

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