U.S. SEC turning to technology to spot accounting abuses

Fri Apr 26, 2013 1:15pm EDT

* SEC expects more progress in harnessing technology

* Tech tools may help spot "earnings management" -SEC

* Enforcement staff shifting away from credit crisis cases

By Suzanne Barlyn and Dena Aubin

NEW YORK, April 26 (Reuters) - The top U.S. securities regulator will ramp up its use of technology to analyze public securities filings for potential accounting abuses, one of its enforcement heads said on Friday.

George Canellos, who was named co-director of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's enforcement division on Monday, said the commission will look at publicly traded companies for instances of "earnings management" - when firms take advantage of gray areas in accounting rules to make earnings look better than they really are.

He made the remarks in New York at a seminar about regulatory enforcement trends sponsored by the Practising Law Institute, an organization that provides continuing education classes for lawyers.

Canellos said the effort would occur over the next two years, and would be a new application of technology it has already used to find aberrant trading patterns and insider trading at hedge funds.

"There are many other projects of this nature," Canellos said, noting that the SEC intends to draw data from EDGAR, the electronic data system companies use for SEC filings, to compare companies' financial performance data and analysts' expectations. Unusual findings that deviate from the norm could signal that a company is managing earnings.

"It's very much in the planning stages," Canellos told Reuters after his remarks. "It's an area where we're hoping to make great strides."

The SEC in recent years has been trying to make corporate financial filings easier to analyze. It now requires companies to tag filings with so-called XBRL computer codes, akin to the bar coding used by retailers.

With machine-readable tags on company data, numbers that often get buried in reams of footnotes can be quickly culled.

Canellos, when questioned by a moderator, declined to outline specific enforcement priorities, citing the agency's recent leadership changes.

New SEC Chairman Mary Jo White was sworn in on April 10. Canellos' co-director, Andrew Ceresney, a former federal prosecutor and partner at law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, starts on Monday, Canellos said.

The SEC, however, will shift away from cases related to the 2008 credit crisis and to those more relevant to current markets, Canellos said. Its focuses will include checking for abuses among fiduciaries overseeing risk on Wall Street, he said.

Canellos was the enforcement division's acting director since January and deputy director since June 2012. He served as director of the SEC's New York regional office from 2009 to 2012.

A couple walks along the rough surf during sunset at Oahu's North Shore, December 26, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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