Earnings Quality Essay

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Generally,  earnings  quality  is the  degree  to  which earnings (also known as net income) accurately reflect the  economic  performance  of an enterprise  for the particular period of time to which the earnings apply. Earnings quality (also known as quality of earnings) is also a measure of the usefulness of the earnings number. It is reasonable to assume that a more accurate report  of a firm’s performance  would be more useful than a less accurate report. Earnings that can be sustained—expected in the future—are more useful, and hence of higher quality, than those that appear transitory. The real debate is about the specific factors that influence earnings quality and how we can measure earnings quality.

Measures of earnings quality may include (1) the number of estimates embedded in the earnings calculation, (2) the choices in accounting methods, (3) significant changes in discretionary expenditures, (4) the relationship between cash from operations and earnings, and (5) the adequacy of disclosure and degree of transparency  in the financial statements.

The calculation  of earnings  is fraught  with  estimates. For example, the useful lives of assets and the assets’ salvage values must be estimated  to calculate depreciation expense. All else equal, a firm with more long-term  assets would have lower earnings quality than a firm with few long-term assets because the former would have many opportunities to influence the level of depreciation  expense  with  these  estimates. Management   judgments   create   opportunities  for errors. In general, more estimates involved in the calculation of earnings suggest lower earnings quality.

Firms must choose the appropriate method of accounting for certain transactions,  and these choices can  influence  the  quality  of earnings.  For  example, under U.S. generally accepted accounting principles, a firm may use FIFO (first-in, first-out) or LIFO (last-in, first-out) for the calculation of cost of sales. If the cost of the inventory has been rising, LIFO may result in higher earnings quality because the more recent costs will be matched with the period’s sales. That means the resulting earnings amount may be more useful in predicting the future than earnings calculated using FIFO costs, which match old inventory costs with the period’s sales. On the other hand, a firm’s earnings quality could be reduced if the firm liquidated old LIFO layers, which would result in the inclusion of illusory profits in the earnings calculation. This example shows how difficult it is to measure the quality of a firm’s earnings, even on a single dimension like the cost of sales.

A reduction in expenditures on research and development (R&D) or on maintenance could have a positive effect on the size of earnings, but in some cases it could mean  a reduction  in earnings  quality. Any reduction in discretionary expenditures should be investigated to see whether the firm is increasing its efficiency (which would increase earnings quality) or simply trying to keep earnings high while sacrificing maintenance and R&D.

Because earnings are calculated using accrual-basis accounting,  we know that earnings are not the same as cash. However, even with accruals and deferrals for such items as credit sales or credit purchases, eventually firms are interested  in generating  cash from the operations of the firm. Some people view earnings as higher quality when there is a strong relationship over time between elements in the calculation of earnings and elements  in the calculation of cash from operations. Suppose, for example, that a firm’s net sales revenue was always larger than  its cash collected from customers.  This may signal a pattern  of underestimating  uncollectible  accounts,  which reduces  earnings quality. Overall, a positive correlation  between earnings and cash from operations is often seen as an indication of higher earnings quality.

The more the users of financial statements  know about   the   financial   transactions   and   accounting choices made by a firm, the  more  useful the  information  is. When it is difficult to understand a firm’s financial  statements   (as  in  the  case  of Enron,  for example), the quality of the earnings  may be called into question. In general, disclosure and transparency in the financial reports are positively associated with earnings quality.

There is no universally accepted definition of earnings quality. Conceptually,  there  is some  agreement that earnings quality is associated with accurate representation of economic events and also associated with usefulness. However, measuring the quality of any specific earnings number is complicated and difficult.


  1. Richard Barker and Shahed Imam, “Analysts’ Perceptions  of ‘Earnings Quality’,” Accounting and Business Research (v.38/4, 2008);
  2. Duncan, “Quality of Earnings and Accounting Estimates: A Case of Decisions,” Issues in Accounting Education (2002);
  3. D. Hodge, “Investors’ Perceptions of Earnings  Quality,  Auditor  Independence, and the Usefulness of Audited  Financial Information,” Accounting Horizons (2003);
  4. Sharon Katz, Earnings Quality and  Ownership  Structure:  The  Role of  Private Equity Sponsors (National Bureau of Economic Research, 2008);
  5. Kin Lo, “Earnings Management and Earnings Quality,” Journal of Accounting and Economics (v.45/2–3, 2008);
  6. Schipper and L. Vincent, “Earnings Quality,” Accounting Horizons (2003).

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