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Groupon Restatement of Earnings a Cause for Concern

The Signs are there: Market Stability at Risk

You may have heard that Groupon restated its “earnings” to reflect a larger fourth-quarter loss after failing to set aside enough money to account for customer refunds. Groupon’s stock has been falling since it revealed last Friday that it was revising its first quarter earnings to reflect a larger than expected loss. With its past accounting problems, some of which I have previously blogged about, Groupon is now a prime target for shareholder lawyers who believe the company may be liable for the losses investors have suffered since Friday. The stock is currently down about 12% and falling.

Groupon’s restatement increased the company’s fourth-quarter losses from $42.7 million to $64.9 million, more than a 50% increase in the reported loss. Moreover, the company had $500 million revenue last year so the amount of restatement is significant, or material as accountants would say.

According to Groupon’s accountant, Ernst & Young, the accounting error came from a “material weakness in its internal controls”. This means other transactions may be at risk since poor controls in one area tend to cause problems elsewhere. More important, the internal control problems raise questions about the management of the company and its corporate governance.

The red flags have been waving even before the company went public last year. In preparing its IPO, the company used a financial metric it called “Adjusted Consolidated Segment Operating Income”. The problem was that figure excluded marketing costs, which make up the bulk of the company’s expenses. The net result was to make Groupon’s financial results appear better than they actually were. After the SEC raised questions about the metric — which The Wall Street Journal called “financial voodoo” — Groupon downplayed the formulation in its IPO documents.

Groupon’s latest restatement is partially a consequence of the “Groupon Promise” feature of its business model. The company pledges to refund deals if customers aren’t satisfied. Because it has been selling those deals at higher prices lately — which leads to a higher rate of returns — it needs to set aside larger amounts to account for refunds — something it hasn’t been doing. It’s another example of Groupon failing to accurately account for a part of its business that reduces its financial performance. That shouldn’t inspire investor confidence.

In an updated filing with the SEC, Groupon said it is working to “remediate the material weakness,” in its internal financial reporting controls, and will hire “additional finance personnel.” But it warned: “If our remedial measures are insufficient to address the material weakness, or if additional material weaknesses or significant deficiencies in our internal control over financial reporting are discovered or occur in the future, our consolidated financial statements may contain material misstatements and we could be required to restate our financial results.”

In a statement, Groupon tried to put a positive spin on the whole matter. “We remain confident in the fundamentals of our business, as our performance continues to highlight the value that we provide to customers and merchants,” said Groupon Chief Financial Officer Jason Child.

This is right out of the Enron playbook when former CEO and chair of the board of directors, Ken Lay, stood in front of a meeting of employees, many of whom bought Enron stock for their 401-Ks, and touted the viability of the company’s unusual business model that had served Enron so well for so long albeit because of falsified financial statements.

Groupon's latest missteps, combined with its previous accounting issues, call into question whether the start-up was ready to be a public company that has to produce reliable financial reports, said Sandra Peters, head of financial reporting policy for the CFA Institute, which represents chartered financial analysts who work with individual investors.

"It really demonstrates, for an IPO, were they really ready to go?" she said. "Did they have the financial systems, did they have the processes and procedures in place?"

Similar concerns were echoed by people who track the company on Wall Street. "It's going to definitely unsettle a lot of investors," said Ken Sena, an analyst covering Groupon for Evercore Partners.

What is the lesson to be learned from Groupon’s experience? It is that we are vulnerable once again to a market meltdown because there are many companies like Groupon that want to cash in on Google’s phenomenal stock growth since its IPO. A better economic outlook and rising stock market are heating up the market just weeks before Facebook's highly anticipated IPO.

Congress, meanwhile, is lessening restrictions on IPOs in an attempt to make it easier for younger companies to raise money. Where have we heard this before? Was it when the Congress repealed the Glass-Steagall Act that had served the market so well by preventing commercial and investment banks from combining? Let’s not forget that the repeal in the law ushered in a period of over-selling in the market and, ultimately, the financial meltdown of 2008.

Let’s also not forget that famous line from Albert Einstein about insanity. Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 5, 2012