These statements do, however, offer a window into the world of privately held companies such as the Trump Organization, which operate under very lax accounting rules.
Trump’s accountants at Mazars freely admitted in legal proceedings quoted in the Post story that all they did was write down numbers Trump supplied. “In the compilation process, it is not the role of the accountant to assess the values,” said one accountant in a deposition. “The value per se does not have to be logical.”
A public company must issue audited financial statements every quarter, so that investors and lenders can make informed choices about stock holdings. Outside of financial firms, however, private firms operate under no such mandate. They are not required to have a reputable accounting firm audit or double-check their financial statements using generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). You’ll be shocked to know that some companies take advantage of this fact.
For example, Theranos didn’t produce audited financial statements for years even as it duped investors into funding its overhyped blood-test ambitions. Theranos didn’t have a full-time chief financial officer, or an accurate budgeting and cash-flow forecast, until the middle of 2017, 14 years after it was founded and well after raising $700 million from investors. Those investors bought in after receiving marketing materials with financial projections that had little reality behind them. Sound familiar?
Read: The exasperating difficulty of trying to understand Trump’s finances
Critics have thoroughly questioned Uber’s financials, which have rather suspiciously become less sunny as the company works up to an initial public offering, when it will have to provide audited financial statements. Even Warren Buffett, according to Francine McKenna at MarketWatch, “adjust[s] his bottom line with unconventional accounting, just like the Wall Street bankers and corporate CEOs he frequently criticizes for adjusting standard earnings to tell a better story.” (No one has credibly accused Buffett of taking advantage of investors.)
While elites scammed by Theranos might not inspire much sympathy, smaller investors might suffer under the status quo too, especially after the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, a 2012 law that reduced financial-reporting requirements for start-ups and enabled them to collect seed money through crowdfunding. Unsophisticated investors who get only limited and often unvetted financial information from private companies can easily find themselves on the wrong side of a scam.
The Securities and Exchange Commission does, of course, place some rules on private-company accounting. But the agency has been dogged by accusations of lax enforcement. The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, created after a series of accounting scandals in the early 2000s, provides another layer of scrutiny to the auditing companies that look over corporate books. But as the title reveals, PCAOB doesn’t apply to privately held companies.