Making Money the Old Fashioned Way, By Cooking the Books

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Via Tyler Cowen, here’s a fascinating bit of research from Jialan Wang based on Benford’s Law. Benford’s Law tells us about the distribution of digits in many kinds of tabular data, including financial data. The digit 1 shows up 30.1% of the time, 2 shows up 17.6% of the time, all the way to 9, which shows up 4.6% of the time. If you examine some financial data, and the digits show up in the wrong proportions, it probably means the books have been cooked.

Well, guess what? Back in 1960 corporate reports followed Benford’s Law almost precisely. Today? Not so much. The chart below shows deviations over time for three different industries. Finance took a big leap in 1980, when the S&L scandal was taking off, and then leveled out. IT and manufacturing took smaller jumps in the early 80s, bigger jumps during the dotcom era, and then leveled out at about the same rate as finance. But all three industries, and the business community as a whole, have deviations at much higher levels today than they did in 1960.

What does this mean? Possibly nothing. Maybe there’s a plausible explanation. But what it probably means is that large corporations routinely fudge their figures far more than they used to. Wang puts it like this:

While these time series don’t prove anything decisively, deviations from Benford’s law are compellingly correlated with known financial crises, bubbles, and fraud waves. And overall, the picture looks grim. Accounting data seem to be less and less related to the natural data-generating process that governs everything from rivers to molecules to cities. Since these data form the basis of most of our research in finance, Benford’s law casts serious doubt on the reliability of our results. And it’s just one more reason for investors to beware.

I’m not surprised. But it would be interesting to do a similar study on European corporations to see if the same trend is evident. Is systematic book cooking mainly a Wall Street phenomenon, or has the entire world’s business community been getting less honest over time?

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

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In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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