Nortel’s revenue recognition wrinkles

Om Malik, writer at Business 2.0 and power blogger, has posted his thoughts on the Nortel announcement from a couple days ago that they would have to restate their earnings again. His reaction is one of incredulity that Nortel, “a big NYSE company,” could actually not be able to get their accounting straightened out after all this time. Let me take a stab at an explanation.

Nortel BramptonThe thing about accounting is that minor changes have trickle down effects in many related accounts and indeed many different periods. A discovery of an error in an estimate for prior years’ revenues (estimates would be required if multi-year contracted sales arrangements are used, which they most certainly would be for Nortel) would have an effect on every set of financial statements from that year forward. Because Nortel is so large, public, and has operations in many countries (and is listed on both the NYSE and the Toronto Stock Exchange), it takes the auditors a long time and a lot of work to sort through the changes and restatements and their many side effects. And it’s busy season too.

Having seen the accounting inside many businesses up close and personal, I think the average observer would be very surprised at the amount of errors and issues auditors have to clean up and/or sort through as part of their job of rendering an opinion on the fair presentation of the statements.