Revenue Recognition and Creative Accounting: Tools for Financial Strategy

Categories: Revenue recognition


Revenue recognition is a critical aspect of financial reporting, playing a pivotal role in assessing an entity's performance and profitability. This essay delves into the intricate relationship between revenue recognition and creative accounting, exploring how this accounting practice can be manipulated to misrepresent a company's financial health. To shed light on these concepts, we will first establish the fundamental principles of revenue recognition, followed by an in-depth examination of creative accounting and its motivations. Subsequently, we will explore various methods through which revenue recognition can serve as a tool for creative accounting.

This essay seeks to elucidate the nuances of revenue recognition and creative accounting while highlighting their implications for stakeholders.

Revenue Recognition Principles

In financial reporting, revenue recognition is the process of determining when and how to recognize revenue in an entity's financial statements. Revenue is recognized when it is probable that future economic benefits will flow to the entity and these benefits can be measured reliably.

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Sale of Goods

Revenue arising from the sale of goods should be recognized when all the following criteria are met:

  1. The seller has transferred to the buyer the significant risks and rewards of ownership.
  2. The seller retains neither continuing managerial involvement to the degree usually associated with ownership nor effective control over the goods sold.
  3. The amount of revenue can be measured reliably.
  4. It is probable that the economic benefits associated with the transaction will flow to the seller.
  5. The costs incurred or to be incurred in respect of the transaction can be measured reliably.

Rendering of Services

For revenue arising from the rendering of services, it should be recognized based on the stage of completion of the transaction at the balance sheet date (the percentage-of-completion method) if the following criteria are met:

  1. The amount of revenue can be measured reliably.
  2. It is probable that the economic benefits will flow to the seller.
  3. The stage of completion at the balance sheet date can be measured reliably.
  4. The costs incurred, or to be incurred, in respect of the transaction can be measured reliably.

When these criteria are not met, revenue arising from the rendering of services should be recognized only to the extent of the expenses recognized that are recoverable (a "cost-recovery approach").

Interest, Royalties, and Dividends

For interest, royalties, and dividends, revenue should be recognized if it is probable that the economic benefits will flow to the enterprise, and the amount of revenue can be measured reliably. Specific methods include:

  1. Interest: Using the effective interest method.
  2. Royalties: On an accruals basis in accordance with the substance of the relevant agreement.
  3. Dividends: When the shareholder's right to receive payment is established.

These principles form the foundation of revenue recognition in financial reporting, ensuring that revenue is recorded accurately and fairly.

Creative Accounting: Motivations and Methods

Creative accounting, on the other hand, refers to the strategic use of accounting knowledge to influence financial figures within the bounds of accounting rules and regulations. The primary objective of creative accounting is to present financial information in a manner that aligns with management's preferences rather than accurately reflecting the company's actual performance or position. Several motivations drive the practice of creative accounting:

  1. Meeting Internal Targets: Managers may engage in creative accounting to meet internal targets set by higher management related to sales, profitability, and share prices.
  2. Meeting External Expectations: Companies face external expectations from various stakeholders, including employees, customers, suppliers, and analysts. Creative accounting may be used to manage these expectations and maintain positive relationships.
  3. Income Smoothing: Creative accounting can help companies present a steady income stream, which can impress investors and stabilize share prices.
  4. Taxation Benefits: In some cases, creative accounting may result from a desire to obtain tax benefits, particularly when taxable income is calculated based on accounting figures.
  5. Change in Management: New managers may engage in creative accounting to attribute losses to the poor management of the previous administration.

With these motivations in mind, it becomes evident that creative accounting can manifest in various ways, one of which is manipulating revenue recognition. This essay will now delve into how revenue recognition can serve as a method for creative accounting practices.

Revenue Recognition as a Tool for Creative Accounting

Revenue recognition is particularly susceptible to manipulation in creative accounting, given its significant impact on a company's financial statements. To demonstrate this, let's consider the case of Microsoft, which faced substantial fines from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for its manipulative revenue recognition policy. Microsoft recognized only a small percentage of revenue at the time of sale, reserving the remainder as provision for future after-sales services. This strategy served multiple purposes:

  1. Hiding Substantial Profits: By recognizing only a fraction of revenue upfront, Microsoft effectively concealed substantial profits, presenting a different financial picture to stakeholders.
  2. Signaling Effects: Manipulating revenue recognition can send signals to investors and analysts, potentially influencing their perception of the company's performance and prospects.
  3. Avoiding Complacency: Maintaining a conservative approach to revenue recognition can prevent complacency within the organization and encourage ongoing efforts to improve results.
  4. Reporting Smoothed Earnings: Recognizing revenue over time can lead to more stable and predictable earnings, which can be appealing to shareholders and investors.

The case of Microsoft underscores how revenue recognition can be leveraged as a tool for creative accounting to achieve specific financial objectives.

Methods of Revenue Recognition Manipulation

Numerous methods can be employed to manipulate revenue recognition, allowing companies to distort their financial performance. These methods include but are not limited to:

  1. Common Revenue Manipulations: These irregularities involve both omission and commission acts, including false entries, misstated contracts, backdating, and misapplication of accounting standards. Such manipulations can result in overstated revenue and mis-timing of recognition.
  2. Channel Stuffing: Channel stuffing entails bringing revenue forward from future fiscal periods by inducing customers to submit purchase orders in advance. This practice can artificially inflate current revenue figures, misrepresenting a company's financial health.
  3. Multiple Element Arrangements: Complex issues arise when revenue is derived from multiple elements or services within a single transaction. Determining how to allocate and recognize revenue in such cases can be a fertile ground for creative accounting manipulation.
  4. Side Letters or Agreements: These involve sellers providing buyers with additional terms or agreements that effectively delay or accelerate revenue recognition, depending on their financial objectives.
  5. Bill and Hold Arrangements: In a bill and hold arrangement, the seller transfers title to the buyer but delays physical delivery until a later date. Manipulating the timing of delivery and risk transfer can facilitate revenue recognition manipulation.
  6. Backdated Contracts: Backdating revenue contracts allows for the early recognition of revenue, diverging from expected recognition dates. This practice can lead to the presentation of misleading financial statements.
  7. Fictitious Transactions: Recording sales of goods or services that never occurred or inflating actual sales is a malicious manipulation. It often involves document falsification, forgery, and manipulation, presenting entirely fictitious revenue figures.

Each of these methods presents opportunities for creative accounting practices, distorting revenue recognition to suit a company's objectives while deviating from the principles of fair and accurate financial reporting.

Practical Examples

Xerox Corporation

An illustrative case of revenue recognition manipulation is the Xerox Corporation. This American company faced significant repercussions after recognizing leasing payments as sales. Following an SEC investigation in April 2002, Xerox was compelled to reclassify its financial statements for the years 1997 to 2000. This reclassification resulted in a reduction of recognized revenues by US$3,000 million and profits by US$1,500 million, with an equivalent reduction in equity. In addition, Xerox was fined US$10 million by the SEC, leading to a drastic decline in the company's share price from US$62 to US$4.5.

So, how did Xerox manipulate its revenue figures?

Xerox engaged in the sale of photocopiers to customers under long-term agreements. Customers would pay a lump sum to Xerox, part of which covered the purchase of the machine, while the remainder was allocated for long-term repair and maintenance services. From an accounting standpoint, this arrangement was not problematic as long as the sale price of the machine and the maintenance service revenues were recognized correctly.

For instance, if a photocopier was valued at US$100, and five-year maintenance cost US$50, the customer would pay Xerox US$150 upon purchasing the machine. The proper accounting method would be to recognize US$110 of sales in year 1 and US$10 of sales in each of the following four years, aligning with the services provided. However, Xerox's accounting malpractice entailed recognizing US$125 in revenue from the machine sale, thereby undervaluing the amount allocated for future repair services. Xerox recorded US$130 as revenue in year 1 and deferred only US$20 over the remaining four years of the contract. This manipulation inflated year 1 profits substantially while reducing future profits, all without altering the total transaction value of US$150.


Another emblematic case of revenue recognition manipulation is the Enron scandal. Enron, along with other energy merchants, generated profits through services like wholesale trading, risk management, and energy infrastructure development. They adopted a method of reporting inflated trading revenue, which was later emulated by other companies in the energy trading industry in an attempt to stay competitive with Enron's remarkable revenue growth.

Enron's extensive expansion was unparalleled, with revenues skyrocketing from $13.3 billion in 1996 to $100.8 billion in 2000. This rapid growth, averaging 65% annually, far exceeded industry norms. By the first nine months of 2001, Enron reported $138.7 billion in revenues, placing the company sixth on the Fortune global 500 list.

Enron's use of distorted, "hyper-inflated" revenues played a pivotal role in creating the illusion of innovation, extraordinary growth, and spectacular business performance. This case underscores how revenue recognition manipulation can be employed to inflate financial figures, creating a façade of success while concealing the true financial condition of a company.

Group Discussion Regarding Revenue Recognition

In discussions concerning revenue recognition and creative accounting, it is essential to recognize that management's primary objective is to maximize shareholder wealth. This objective is achieved when companies record high revenue figures and strong profitability, as reflected in the bottom line, which represents profit.

Through our study, we have come to understand that revenue recognition and creative accounting are tools akin to weapons. Their impact depends on how they are wielded. Creative accounting, often viewed negatively, is perceived as a dishonest act involving the manipulation of financial figures. However, it is essential to acknowledge that creative accounting has both advantages and disadvantages.

Creative accounting can be advantageous, especially in times of crisis, as it can help a company secure loans from banks, attract investors, and motivate employees. Notably, employees have a vested interest in ensuring the security of their jobs, making it crucial for the company's performance to meet their expectations. Retaining key personnel and attracting qualified workers is essential for the company's success. When employed judiciously, creative accounting, particularly in the context of revenue recognition, can serve as a valuable tool to navigate challenging circumstances.

One aspect of revenue recognition not covered by IAS 18 (Revenue Recognition) is the classification of service providers as agents or merchants, which involves a degree of subjectivity and ambiguity. Decisions in such cases often rely on managerial judgment and the specific circumstances of the situation. When management exercises their judgment to recognize revenue in these situations, it may not necessarily constitute manipulation; instead, it can be a valid application of creative accounting principles.

Furthermore, creative accounting can also be applied to genuine transactions. For instance, in the disposal of investments, management has the discretion to decide when to sell, impacting the timing of revenue recognition. When used appropriately, this practice can enhance a company's performance and result in a more stable income stream, which can be attractive to investors. While this can be considered creative accounting, it aligns with the requirements of the transaction and represents a legitimate application of revenue recognition principles.


In summary, creative accounting is a double-edged sword with both advantages and disadvantages. Its impact depends on the intent and magnitude of disclosure. Revenue recognition can act as a method of creative accounting, enhancing both its advantages and disadvantages. When applied judiciously and in alignment with the underlying transaction's requirements, creative accounting can prove beneficial, particularly in challenging situations. However, when used to recognize revenue in artificial or fictitious transactions, it can lead to detrimental consequences, as exemplified by the Enron case. Hence, understanding the nuances and implications of revenue recognition and creative accounting is crucial for stakeholders in the financial community.

Cite this page

Revenue Recognition and Creative Accounting: Tools for Financial Strategy. (2016, May 12). Retrieved from

Revenue Recognition and Creative Accounting: Tools for Financial Strategy
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