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Accounting News Roundup: Deloitte and Monsanto; Walmart’s Machines; Plain English | 09.02.16

Ed. note: ANR will be off on Monday for Labor Day. Have a great weekend.


Earlier in the week we discussed the most recent big whistleblower award paid by the SEC. The anonymous whistleblower, a former financial executive at Monsanto, through his attorney said, "I believe the case will raise awareness of the gaps that still exist today with respect to auditor independence and result in regulators looking closer at this issue and ultimately bring new rules forward to mitigate the impact this has on investors."

The Financial Times reported more specifics on that statement yesterday that I had previously missed:

In its statement on the award the SEC did not refer to the Monsanto case, but the connection was made this week by Stuart Meissner of Meissner Associates, a New York-based law firm that acted for the whistleblower. He said his client wanted to put pressure on the SEC to probe Deloitte’s role in the affair, which prompted the company to restate three years of profits in October 2011. The employee, who has elected to preserve his anonymity, left Monsanto during the course of the SEC investigation.

Mr Meissner claimed that Deloitte, Monsanto’s external auditor, had every opportunity to put a stop to the fraud but failed to do so.

“In our opinion, if they were being honest and forthright, they’d have supported my client when the matter was raised internally. And if they had supported my client, Monsanto would not have been able to use them as a shield, which they did in arguing that my client was wrong,” he said.

I don't know what "use them as a shield" means, but can Deloitte really be expected to take a side in a whistleblower case? Monsanto isn't doing Deloitte any favors by dragging them into this but apparently, that's exactly what they did. “Outside auditors are not necessarily as independent as their name indicates,” Mr. Meissner also said because, obviously.

Walmart's cash recyclers

Back in June we learned about a "pilot" that Walmart was running at some of its stores that were "dropping positions that cover accounting and invoicing for individual stores." Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the company was expanding the program a bit.

The largest private employer in the U.S. is eliminating about 7,000 store accounting and invoicing positions over the next several months. The jobs are mostly held by long-term employees, often some of the highest paid hourly workers in stores. The retailer wants those employees working with shoppers, not in backrooms, say company executives. Centralizing or automating most of their current tasks is more efficient, they say.

“Everybody wants to get in there. The jobs never open up,” says a Walmart employee and now they're never going to open up. Yes, most of those jobs are going to the robots:

The positions Wal-Mart is eliminating manage an individual store’s daily cash flow or process claims from manufacturers delivering goods directly to stores, among other tasks. Starting early next year, much of that work will be handled by a central office or new money-counting “cash recycler” machines in stores.

As ruthlessly efficient as Walmart is, I'm a little surprised that it took them this long to develop the program. If there's a company out there that would replace all its employees with tireless machines at the drop of a hat, it's Walmart. 

Plain English

Financial documents are pretty terrible to to read because, generally, they're written by lawyers. Lawyers are a pretty conservative lot, so they try to be as specific as possible which means they write far more words than they need to. Also, they choose terrible words. This "Plea for Plain English in Financial Documents" has a few suggestions for improving the writing, including:

Start by deleting the hereins, heretos, hereunders and herebys, as well as the occasional aforementioned or witnesseth. Another gem: “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained herein.” Huh?

Matt Levine has a perfect suggestion for replacing that last phrase: "Never mind what we say anywhere else." Levine is also right to suggest that financial documents are hard to read because sometimes…yes, business is complicated! Plain English isn't always going to fix that. If financial documents were written like blogs, they'd be far more enjoyable to read, but would the content be any less complex? No, some stuff is complicated no matter how you try to turn it into a The Walking Dead recap. 

The one suggestion from the article that I can't get behind is "Avoid all caps." You know what you do when you're really trying to get someone's attention? YOU SHOUT AT THEM. The authors suggest using  “Important information to follow” or “Pay attention to this section” but just think of how more effective those would be if you yelled them. PAY ATTENTION. 

See? It totally works.

Has Donald Trump released his tax returns?

Nope! Let's get this long weekend started, shall we?

Previously, on Going Concern…

Megan Lewczyk wrote about net neutrality.

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