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Men in Black Fraudulent Accounting Calls For Intense Scrutiny

Lie detectors. That is what Putnam Investments of Boston has brought in to combat fraudulent corporate activity after Enron, WorldCom and all the rest of the accounting scandals. Human lie detectors.

"Outright accounting fraud is inherently tough to catch," Putnam maintains in a capital markets outlook, special report. "We have, however, recently retained consultants from government intelligence agencies to enhance our analysts' interviewing techniques, so that they can more readily identify if a company's managers are not being fully truthful."

Post-Enron Accounting At Fund Complexes

Putnam would not comment further on these new special-agent "consultants," including exactly which government intelligence agencies they're coming from. But, clearly, Putnam is doing more than simply "returning to fundamentals," something many fund companies maintain is necessary right now.

While Putnam's new consultants may be an extreme course of action, several other firms have made strict adjustments to how their portfolio managers and analysts are examining potential investments.

"We've developed a supplement to our financial models to highlight certain data, which will help us uncover anything suspicious and detect fraud," said Peg Thompson, assistant director of research at Janus of Denver. "The supplement contains balance sheet and cash flow-related data as well as information typically buried in the footnotes of its financial statement."

Janus also recently hired a former chief accountant with the SEC as well as an accounting professor from Wake Forest University. Further, the mutual fund giant is relying on its own internal auditors to provide insight into new accounting rules and the convoluted accounting techniques that some companies have misused in order to manipulate earnings, said Janus star portfolio manager Laurence Chang in an interview.

"We're more cynical about a company's management," Chang said. "We're broadening our list of outside contacts to verify the legitimacy of management and the story they're telling us."

Whither the Green Eyeshades?

Janus has good reason to be cynical. The fund family was one of the most heavily hit by the Enron debacle. At one point, Janus owned about 40.9 million shares of Enron, more than 5% of the firm's stock. Implementing stricter accounting analytical procedures and scrutinizing company balance sheets will not automatically prevent making a mistake about a company engaged in outright fraud, according to Janus Director of Research Jim Goff.

Still, holding Enron is a slip-up the firm admits to readily, and one it is aggressively trying to avoid repeating.

"We should have probed more deeply into the reasons behind [former Enron] CEO Jeff Skilling's unexpected departure," Janus confessed in a recent report. "Our biggest mistake, however, was in not pressing management harder about Enron's complex and obscure accounting methods."

The major change that industry analysts say fund companies have made is that when analyzing companies, they are paying much more attention to cash flows and less to reported earnings. Both Putnam and Janus have made it a point to communicate to shareholders that they are examining cash flow-related data as a way of scrutinizing companies.

Adam Bold, founder and chief investment officer at The Mutual Fund Store, an Overland Park, Kan.-based independent investment management and advisory firm that puts together portfolios of mutual funds for clients, said that he is now much more vigilant of companies' cash flows and debt.

"Some of the accounting techniques corporations use are extremely complex and difficult to decipher," Bold said. "In light of corporate fraud, you have to really look at what's inside the funds. We've made a substantial effort to upgrade the quality of the stocks we own. You have to use different measures of assessing firms than just earnings."

Some analysts, however, are wary of firms concentrating too much on cash flows. While being cognizant of cash flow is important, analysts have to remember that cash flow numbers can be manipulated too, according to Thomas Schindler, a analyst with Diamond Hill Capital Management of Columbus, Ohio, which manages four equity funds.

"We have heard some commentators express, to some extent quite rightly, that earnings are an opinion, while cash is a fact," Schindler said. "Unfortunately, some have taken this as an instruction to focus solely on cash flow from operations, ignoring that cash can bleed out of a company through investing and financing activities as well," Schindler said.

"In reality, an analysis of both the balance sheet and income statement are necessary to evaluate corporate profitability in any given period," he said.

Concentrating strictly on cash flow can be tricky because those numbers are highly dependent on what firms decide to capitalize and what they choose to expense, said Tim Mulligan, founder and president of Forensic Advisors of Rockville, Md., an independent financial research firm and self-described "accounting watchdog."