What is Aggressive Accounting?

Mary McMahon

Aggressive accounting is a business practice in which certain misstatements are made on balance sheets and in financial disclosures with the goal of making a company appear economically stable. Some of the tactics used in this type of accounting are explicitly illegal, while others skirt the boundary of legality, being legal in the technical sense but definitely not adhering to the spirit of traditional accounting practices. Also known as “creative” or “innovative” accounting, aggressive accounting has been a problem for centuries, but it became particularly problematic in the 20th century, when it contributed to a number of financial scandals.

Major scandals rocked the accounting industry in the early 2000s.
Major scandals rocked the accounting industry in the early 2000s.

The goal of accounting is to create a complete picture of a company's finances, and to track those finances effectively and honestly. However, there are a number of ways to manipulate accounting figures to cover up financial issues, or to artificially inflate the value of a company. The practice of aggressive accounting, also known as “cooking the books,” involves some machinations to present a desirable financial image.

There are several goals behind aggressive accounting. One is to inflate the stock value of a company, thereby generating more operating capital. Companies may justify the use of this type of accounting with the argument that it creates more capital, allowing the company to expand and strengthen, and that the accounting is simply optimistic, rather than an outright lie. It is also used to mollify shareholders, and can be used specifically to defraud people, in the case of a company which drives stock prices up with aggressive accounting before allowing select individuals to quietly sell off their stock.

It can be difficult to detect aggressive accounting. Shareholders are usually given annual or periodic statements discussing a company's income, expenses, and overall performance, but they don't have access to the company's books, which may have reveal interesting information when they are audited. Financial regulators may also be limited in the amount of auditing they can perform, which means that creative accounting may only be identified when a whistleblower comes forward.

This practice is viewed as harmful because it can inflate financial markets, exposing them to the risk of collapse. It also harms individuals who may be victimized when they invest in companies with aggressive accounting practices, and it can besmirch entire industries as well. A number of nations attempt to regulate accounting practices to make it more difficult to engage in creative accounting, and penalties for cooking the books can include fines and jail time for those involved.

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Discussion Comments


In Nigeria, that was why some banks were taken over by the government, before it was discovered that they were using this method full time. Congrats to the CBN Governor.


Can anyone think of some examples of companies or corporations that were actively caught using aggressive accounting practices?

I think one of the most famous cases in recent history was when ENRON's practices came to light. Their risky behavior with stock options led to numerous scandals and their eventual fall.

Internally, there were those that worked with ENRON who warned them of their likely fall if their practices ever came to light, such as Sherron Watkins the former VP on the corporation, and whistle blower.

This kind of corporate activity cost thousands of jobs and a great deal of money.


I think practices like aggressive accounting are one of the reasons so many companies came into ruin during the 2008 financial downturn. It seems to me that more and more corporations don't give a lick about what their practices will do in the long term.

Inflating their stocks to keep shareholders happy and satisfied just makes a bigger problem for everyone when their practices come to light and their carefully built house of cards tumbles.

Many of these companies are 'too big to fail' which just leads up taxpayers to bail them out. I think that there should be some policies in place that make their precious books public domain. You have our money, so it is only fair that we should see what you’re doing with it.

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