Adding the Noise: A Theory of Compensation-Driven Earnings Management

Ilan Guttman, Ohad Kadan and Eugene Kandel

Empirical evidence suggests that the distribution of earnings reports is discontinuous. This is puzzling since the distribution of true earnings is likely to be continuous. We present a model that rationalizes this phenomenon. In our model, managers report their earnings to rational investors, who price the stock accordingly. We assume that misreporting is costly, but since managers' compensation is based on the stock price, they may want to manipulate the reported earnings. The model fits into the general framework of signaling games with a continuum of types. The conventional equilibrium in this game is fully revealing (e.g. Stein 1989), and does not explain the observed discontinuity of earnings reports. We show that a partially pooling equilibrium exists in such games as well, and it generates an endogenous discontinuity in reports. By pooling reports of different types, the informed manager introduces "home-made" noise into his report. The resulting vagueness enables the manager to reduce the manipulation costs. While a priori pooling looks manipulative, it is actually a way to reduce earnings management. The empirical implications of our model relate earnings management and price reaction to price- and earnings-based compensation, growth opportunities of the firm, underlying volatility, and the stringency of accounting rules. We show that this equilibrium arises due to stock-based compensation of the managers, and does not arise when they are paid based on their earnings directly. Finally, we present a general version of this model describing the behavior of biased experts in many real-life situations.

March, 2004
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