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 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 McDonald's (NYSE: MCD), the quick service restaurant, 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


18 times in last 26 quarters.


19 times in last 22 quarters.

Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE: CMG)

3 times in last 19 quarters.


13 times in last 15 quarters.

Yum! Brands (NYSE: YUM)

13 times in last 25 quarters.


22 times in last 22 quarters.

Source: and author's calculations. Difference in number of quarters counted due to data source.

In my view, McDonald's might be of concern. It had two yearlong stretches of hitting estimates to the penny, back in 2005-2007, and it has reported yearly growth every quarter since the second quarter of 2006. Foolish investors might want to look a bit further to see if that's just good analyst management or something a bit more worrisome.

Yum! is a bit worrisome because it has reported yearly growth for every quarter over the past 5.5 years, despite a worldwide recession. Yes, they're growing well in China, but is that enough to explain it? That should probably be explored a bit more to make sure everything is kosher.

Chipotle, on the other hand, doesn't worry me as much. However, if it's guiding analyst estimates, then it's low-balling because it has handily beaten those estimates for the past seven quarters in a row. That's nice to see, up to a point.

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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Chipotle Mexican Grill is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems recommendation and a Rule Breakers selection. Motley Fool Options has recommended a bull call spread position on Yum! Brands. Finally, the Fool owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill and Yum! Brands. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool analyst Jim Mueller is a beneficial owner of General Electric, owns shares of Chipotle, and has a bull call spread position on Yum! Brands. He works with the Stock Advisor newsletter service. The Fool is all about investors writing for investors.

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