The Wall Street Journal

 

March 26, 2002 3:26 p.m. EST

 

 

 

 

 

 

FROM THE ARCHIVES: March 26, 2002
   

A Sullied Profession Finds
It's Hip to Be Calculating

By CASSELL BRYAN-LOW
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Professor Charles W. Mulford returned from a recent day's skiing in Vail to find an invitation to a wine-and-cheese party at a nearby inn. It turned out he was the guest of honor. The owner and lodgers were keen to chat about his latest book, "The Financial Numbers Game: Detecting Creative Accounting Practices."

As if that weren't scintillating enough, somebody handed him a copy of Tyco International Ltd.'s latest annual report so he could dissect it for the crowd.

[Portrait of Charles Mulford]"There is a hipness" to accounting now, says Mr. Mulford, a 50-year-old professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. "You would think it would be the other way, where it had been tainted somehow."

Long the butt of "bean-counter" jokes, accountants seemed poised to endure even worse after Enron Corp. collapsed and its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen LLP, was indicted. But the whiff of scandal seems to have made the green eyeshade just a little sexy. Accounting experts are pitching books and turning into the life of the party. A movie about an accountant even won an Oscar on Sunday.

Suddenly, there's a new breed of jokes. "Being an accountant gives him that extra aura of danger," says one woman to another in a bar, in a Jack Ziegler cartoon in the March 11 issue of the New Yorker magazine. On the online auction site Ebay, Arthur Andersen memorabilia for sale includes a branded sports bottle with this pitch from the would-be seller: "something to keep you cool, whether you are sweating in front of a Congressional investigative panel or running a high-paced shredding department."

David Zion, an accounting specialist at Bear Stearns Cos., says he was taken aback when, over cake and balloons at his daughter Amber's birthday party, another father sidled up to him to chit-chat about the effect of accounting scandals on the stock market.

"I was, like, 'What?' " says Mr. Zion. At a pottery-painting party for four-year olds, "accounting is just not a subject that tends to pop up."

His colleague Janet Pegg says, "You used to go to parties and when people asked about your job, no one was interested. Now you're the star."

"We've never been so popular," adds Robert Willens, an accounting analyst at Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., who says he's been so overwhelmed by calls to appear on television that he now knows how "rock stars and athletes feel."

 

Go to Questioning the Books1

 

 

 

 

"This is our 15 minutes of fame," he says. "We knew it would come eventually."

Howard Schilit, a former accounting professor who now runs the Center for Financial Research and Analysis in Rockville, Md., which crunches companies' financial statements for institutional-investor clients, just returned from a string of speaking engagements in London. His schedule is packed with a dozen more over the next two months, including his first trip to Hong Kong. "This is extraordinary," says the father of three teenagers. His children are proud, he says, "but the youngest one is a little embarrassed by the attention."

He has his own suddenly hot book, "Financial Shenanigans: How to Detect Accounting Gimmicks and Fraud in Financial Reports," released this month. "Investors are just fed up with any trickery, whereas, in the past bull market, people just looked the other way," he says.

The spotlight on accountants could get brighter in Enron, the movie, now in development for television by former HBO program executive Robert Cooper and Lowell Bergman, a former "60 Minutes" producer. With its themes of "the American business dream gone awry and how power can corrupt, there is a great movie lurking under the whole Enron story," says Mr. Cooper. He expects characters will include Andersen auditors, and a star turn for Sherron Watkins, a former Andersen accountant who became an Enron vice president and then warned the chairman about the company's accounting problems.

There's already plenty of buzz about who will play Ms. Watkins. When Lorraine Bracco, who plays Dr. Melfi on The Sopranos, attended congressional hearings on Enron in late January, some in Hollywood speculated that she was angling for the role. Her spokesman says she hasn't expressed interest. Mr. Cooper won't discuss the casting in detail, but notes that whoever it is will be "someone who exudes a sense of humor and energy."

A different sort of character starred in "The Accountant," the Academy Award-winner for best live-action short. In the film, a hard-drinking, chain-smoking backwoods accountant comes up with creative ways for two brothers to save their family's Georgia farm. Writer-director Ray McKinnon, who also played the accountant in the movie, says he was intrigued by a character who is always justifying the means by the ends. Among the accountant's closing lines: "Numbers and facts are always fudged here and there; it's called accounting."

Of course, that isn't how accounting teachers see it -- and they're getting plenty of new minds to mold. At New York University's school of continuing studies, enrollment for this semester's accounting courses jumped 42% over the year before. Oversubscribed, even those students unable to enroll are showing up at classes. People are "clamoring to get in," says Mary Silver, director of finance, law and taxation at the school.

"We always feel like the Cinderella of disciplines," Ms. Silver says. But now the fairy godmother has arrived. "All of a sudden everyone wants to take us to the ball."

At one recent Tuesday evening session in a Manhattan classroom, students hunched over textbooks and scribbled notes as the teacher, John F. Mahoney, CPA walked them through such principles as receivables turnover. Among those who don't fit the drab stereotype is Jing Chen, a 27-year-old decked out in pointed, heeled boots and camel-colored sweater and pants. She hated accounting in college, but is taking this "financial statements analysis" course because she is thinking of signing up for a master's in business administration.

A year ago, "I wouldn't have known what aggressive accounting was," she says. But the recent accounting scandal at Enron has helped bring the whole subject to life. Ms. Chen, who works in the financial-services industry, says co-workers tease her about whether her class has gotten to the chapter teaching about "cooking the books."

Write to Cassell Bryan-Low at cassell.bryan-low@wsj.com2

 

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Updated March 26, 2002 3:26 p.m. EST



 

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