In 2000, General Electric posted its 100th consecutive quarter of growth in continuing operations. That's 25 years. Raise your hand if that sounds just a bit suspicious. Whatever business you're in, that feat just isn't possible unless your company's managing its reported earnings.

According to a 1998 survey, 78% of CFOs attending a given conference said they'd been asked to "cast financial results in a better light" without running afoul of GAAP. Half said they'd done it. Nearly half said they'd been asked to misrepresent their company's numbers, and 38% admitted they'd done so. Another survey at a different conference found that more than half of the CFOs attending had been asked to juice their numbers, and 17% had agreed to do so.

It's easy to understand why companies succumb to the incredible pressure to make it look like they've met or beaten targets or Wall Street expectations. Consistent growth is a feather in any CEO's cap, and a rising stock price often increases many executives' compensation, especially from stock options. But when companies stray from merely managing their numbers within GAAP into outright fudging them -- Enron, Sunbeam, we're looking at you here -- they can ruin themselves and their shareholders.

How can we spot suspicious earnings patterns soon enough to save ourselves? We can track how closely a company meets earnings expectations, monitor its frequency of year-over-year growth, and compare those stats to numbers from a few competitors, which should be affected similarly by changes in the business cycle. Any company that lands eerily close to earnings-per-share (EPS) expectations, and grows earnings year-over-year with unusual reliability, should raise a yellow flag and invite us to look closer.

Here's a look at what Chico's FAS (NYSE: CHS), the clothing retailer, has done over the past few years. I've also included a couple of other businesses playing in the same space for comparison.


Reported EPS Within $0.02 of Estimates?

How Close to Estimates, on Average

How Often It Reported Growth

Chico's FAS

15 times in last 22 quarters.


12 times in last 22 quarters.

American Eagle Outfitters (NYSE: AEO)

22 times in last 22 quarters.


12 times in last 22 quarters.

Talbots (NYSE: TLB)

11 times in last 21 quarters.


8 times in last 21 quarters.

Source: and author calculation. Difference in number of quarters counted due to data source.

In my view, there's not much to worry about for Chico's. It's come close to estimates a bit more than half the time, while reporting yearly growth just over half the time. What is surprising, however, is the record put up by American Eagle: a perfect 22 for 22. Over the past five and a a half years, it has not missed estimates by more than $0.02, and it did so only once, in the first quarter of 2008. The only thing saving it in my mind from a strong suspicion of managing earnings is that it only was able to grow earnings 12 times out of those 22 quarters. Without digging much further into the quarterly or annual reports, I'll have to conclude right now that it's just very good at managing analysts. Talbots doesn't raise any flags for me, at least from this way of looking at things.

Note that I'm not concentrating on managing estimates here -- though management does that, too. However, if a management team always seems to deliver on estimates time and time again, you should probably dig a bit deeper, to see whether its interpretation of GAAP is getting a bit too fast and loose.

Investors crave consistency. That's one reason why its string of reliable results spurred GE's stock price to rise so much in the 1980s and 1990s. But the real world isn't consistent, and Foolish investors should account for that. If a company's results seem too steady to be true, Fools should proceed with caution.

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Fool analyst Jim Mueller is a beneficial owner of General Electric, but doesn't have a position in any other company mentioned. He works with the Stock Advisor newsletter service. The Fool is all about investors writing for investors.