August 16, 2007 7:55 PM PDT

Goals led Dell to cook the books

Though Dell has finished an internal investigation into its accounting practices, there are still plenty of questions about the company, which not long ago could do no wrong in the minds of investors and customers.

What we know now is that Dell's finance department was apparently willing to fudge numbers to ensure it would hit or surpass its quarterly earnings forecasts. The unit seems to have done that with the knowledge of, or sometimes at the request of, senior executives. And the guilty parties did it because Dell's accounting department didn't strictly follow generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP, Chief Financial Officer Donald Carty said in a conference call Thursday afternoon. Carty became CFO after Jim Schneider stepped down in January.

The department used "inappropriate accounting decisions and entries that appear to have been largely motivated to achieve desired accounting results," Carty said during the call with investors, apparently reading from a document filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission explaining the results of the company's investigation.

The SEC's separate investigation is still under way.

Dell felt so pressured to meet Wall Street expectations that its finance department bent accounting rules to make up for shortfalls in certain quarters and underreported earnings results in others, each time ensuring that Dell seemed to hit earnings targets that financial analysts were expecting. Carty didn't go into detail, but it appears much of the accounting manipulation involved the timing of expenses and payments recognized on Dell's balance sheets.

Donald Carty Donald Carty

So who knew about the financial shenanigans, and when? Carty said executives knew and even encouraged it, but he won't say exactly who those executives were, and is so far refusing to single anyone out for responsibility. "I'm not going to talk about any individual by name," Carty said. "We've taken what we believe to be appropriate actions with respect to personnel involved in this, up to and including terminations."

More importantly, how did this happen at a company widely considered to be conservative and, above all, trustworthy? Dell's explanation is that not only did it not maintain a culture that emphasized strict adherence to GAAP rules, it didn't have enough employees with the proper accounting training or experience to know better.

In addition, Dell says inadequate resources in its accounting department are partly to blame, and--in a remarkable acknowledgment for a company that pioneered selling computers on the Internet--that much of its accounting is done manually, with very few electronic trails.

Carty acknowledged that Dell is "underinvested in IT resource in the financial area." He also told investors "financial systems can't be blamed for irregularities, but they can occasionally be blamed for errors."

Dell's accounting department used "inappropriate accounting decisions and entries that appear to have been largely motivated to achieve desired accounting results."
--Donald Carty,
Dell CFO

It's not uncommon, of course, for companies to be motivated by short-term results. It's just surprising that Dell has become such an egregious example of that short-term thinking.

"I think every company that's public feels the pressure of being a public company and (hitting) quarterly numbers. I think that's why you see companies issuing quarterly guidance," said Brent Bracelin, a financial analyst with Pacific Crest Securities. "It certainly isn't a comforting feeling that they were manipulating numbers. It happened in the past. (The) most important thing is they addressed it and quantified it."

Overall, the financial impact to Dell's bottom line is limited. Between fiscal years 2003 and 2006, Dell's net income was more than $12 billion. The audit committee now says that the actual net income Dell earned during that period is $50 million to $150 million less. Earnings per share for that time frame will likely be 2 cents to 7 cents per share lower.

But how, exactly, does something like this happen? A look at the Dell quarters in question (notably, a period when the company was being praised for strong profits while rival Hewlett-Packard was struggling to meet Wall Street expectations) may provide some answers.

In the first quarter of fiscal year 2003, Dell announced profits of $457 million, or 17 cents per share, on revenue of $8.1 billion for the quarter. Analysts had been expecting a profit of 16 cents per share and revenue of $7.86 billion, according to First Call.

According to the corrected information Dell released Thursday, the net income for that quarter should have been 10 percent lower, around $410 million. Against 2.67 billion outstanding shares that quarter, that would have been 15 cents a share, missing expectations.

In Dell's second quarter of fiscal 2004, the PC maker reported net income of $621 million, or 24 cents a share. Analysts had been expecting 24 cents a share. With the restatement, Dell should have earned $561 million, or 21 cents a share.

The fourth quarter of Dell's fiscal 2005 was an anomaly, as the company took a one-time charge of $280 million for repatriating foreign earnings after the passage of the American Jobs Creation Act. GAAP net income for that quarter was $667 million, or 26 cents a share. Without the charge, it was $947 million, or 37 cents a share. Analysts were expecting, without the charge, 36 cents a share.

After the restatement, Dell actually earned $620 million in GAAP net income, or $900 million without the charge, which would have been 35 cents a share.

CONTINUED: Keeping accounts straight…
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Anybody Seen Rollie Lately?
I'll bet he's shopping for a yacht to be anchored in international waters.

Oh, and the lesson to be learned is this. If you want to get away with shady things, do things manually. DO NOT computerize. DO NOT buy new Dell servers. Repeat. DO NOT buy new Dell servers. Keep your old beater servers, have lots of backup failures, and corrupt the database periodically, as needed.
Posted by Stating (869 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I love the paragraph
I love the paragraph:

Overall, the financial impact to Dell's bottom line is limited. ...Dell's
net income was more than $12 billion. The audit committee now says
that the actual net income Dell earned during that period is $50
million to $150 million less. Earnings per share for that time frame
will likely be 2 cents to 7 cents per share lower.

Oh... no big deal... very limited impact. Just an average of 5 cents a
share. Who is that gonna hurt? Well.. if you are someone who has 2
million shares of stock and lost 5 cents a share you just lost 10
million dollars.
Posted by ibeetle (259 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Do your math
2,000,000 shares x $.05 = $100,000. And if you have enough money to purchase 2 million shares, then yes, $100k is nothing.
Posted by eccesignum (37 comments )
Link Flag
Faulty logic
Who it hurt are the shareholders who in total lost millions and millions as the share price tanked. In addition, they got hurt by the millions top executives took for themselves in options and bonuses. I guess you didn't have any Dell stocks.
Posted by oxtail01 (308 comments )
Link Flag
It's math like IBeetle's that has dell in trouble.

Better recalculate.
Posted by yepperdepper (17 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Stockholder Value - Phooey
When are good companies going to stop going insane over short-term stock results? It's destroying America. Enron should have taught them a lesson. A company has Many values to employees, society, our nation, the environment, executives And stockholders.

This one-dimensionsal focus Only on so-called "stockholder value" makes corporations so short-sighted they'll saw off the tree limb they are sitting on. Ugh. This crap was started by the Chicago School of Business years ago, but they need an entirely new paradigm for the twenty-first century.

We all need to start being honest and working together or the entire world is going to hell. And that includes "stockholder value."
Posted by cybervigilante (529 comments )
Reply Link Flag
easy answer
it's not just the idiots on "wall street" that cause this, but the idiots in the board room that tie executive pay and bonuses to the quarterly income statements.

If there was any financial reality and we stopped paying CEOs for "showing up in the morning" regardless of how poorly a company performs on their watch and instead tied their pay to long term successful stewardship, there would be a lot more healthy firms out there. One thing is for sure, we wouldn't be paying the idiot running Home Depot millions or 100's of millions to turn the place into the worst company in the country (at least I can't think of a worse company, but I'm willing to listen to all suggestions).
Posted by xcopy (452 comments )
Link Flag
It's the get rich quick mentality
I keep complaining to my own employer about running the company for the business, not for the stockholders. Even when they are doing pretty good, because they must not sacrafice the business, in exchange for quick money (read as increrased stock value). If you are a company (non-finacial, non-banking industry) in the black, you do not depend upon stockholders. Your business can run off the revenue it makes, for the products and/or services it provides. Run the business for the products and services, customers and employees. Do it well and your stock value will go up. Stockholders should be last priority, because they do not have a direct affect on your business. Stock price does not give any direct indication of product or service quality, or customer's satisfaction, or the amount of business you will do even next week. It is only a measure of investor confidence. Too often so much of a companies profit and success go to stock holders at the expense of employees who work hard for the business. Even those companies with employee stock programs, still don't bridge the gap between what an employee makes vs. a major stock holder. And what work did that stock holder do to earn that profit, or meet that finacial goal? We'll keep up the fight, because its a good fight. And in case your wondering, yes, I am a stockholder too, but employees and customers and the business in general should come before stockholders.
Posted by chash360 (394 comments )
Link Flag
Re: Stockholder Value - Phooey
I have to say that I agree with you 100%.

Contrary to what upper management thinks, it's NOT always all about stockholder value.

And if it was all about "stockholder value", upper management shouldn't be working with their boards to give themselves outrageous bonuses and pay raises. Why should they be paid excessively to do their jobs? That doesn't seem to be adding much "stockholder value" to me.
Posted by chuck_whealton (521 comments )
Link Flag
A whole new paradigm?
So I wonder where you got THAT from? Enhancing shareholder value through good business practices is what US is built on and what makes the economy strong. Before you quote empty, years old cliches, you should have something better to offer besides saying " eniterly new paradigm".
Posted by oxtail01 (308 comments )
Link Flag
I forgot to mention
Their duty to customers and their own reputation. When did people forget about the value of "good will."

If you read the article, though, Dell was not just over-reporting in some quarters, they were under-reporting in others. In other words, they were doing Okay in the long-run, on average. But as usual, everyone was nuts to meet the quarterly. What ever happened to long term vision? Or an investment that takes more than a month to mature?
Posted by cybervigilante (529 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The shoemaker's children have no shoes
There is so much in this article it's hard to stop commenting ;')

Carty acknowledged that Dell is "underinvested in IT resource in the financial area."

This is actually very common. I go to Fry's Electronics, a huge, modern store that has the Absolute latest in softwear and hardware, including commercial accounting and inventory programs. But if you get a refund you stand in this long line where they wrestle with ancient DOS programs on very old computers and call out passwords to each other, aloud. Very strange system. It's like I've stepped back in time ten years. They don't put a dime into that section.
Posted by cybervigilante (529 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Cooking the books
The Enron and similar recent financial scandals are the extreme. What Dell (and HP ) as well as others have done is becoming the norm, because the value of companies is now perceived as the Wall Street stock values, not the inherent value of the company based upon balance sheet assets, sales and growth potential as well as the skills and contributions of the management and work staffs. Until this trend is reversed there will be more books cooked at many respectable corporations. In addition the potential for a 1929 type event of exponential proportions is very high until this method of valuation ceases.
Posted by nmoore6676 (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Different Standards
Overall, I tend to like Dell's hardware.

However, what I will say is that I'm sick and tired of upper management holding themselves to different standards than they hold those under them to.

It's not just Dell, and this is just another of many sorry examples.

Charles R. Whealton
Charles Whealton @
Posted by chuck_whealton (521 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Goals are the best there is, when they are genuine and sensible... no, I am not talking about Iraq ... talking about Dell, HP, and the lot of companies run by people only interested in filling up their pockets regardless at what expense !!! that is the problem ... PEOPLE .... not goals.
Posted by jelcnet (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Dell's next issue...customer satisfaction
Dell is far from out of the woods...the trees are still falling all around. Read their Direct to Dell blogs (<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>) and you will quickly see a customer rebellion forming based on a huge credibility gap based on a melt down in their manufacturing, procurement, customer service organizations.
Posted by jpcyr (1 comment )
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