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Overstating profits can have devastating consequences.
When the management of Australian gaming machine manufacturer Aristocrat Leisure made an overly optimistic forecast on the company's profits back in 2001 and 2002, it could not have forseen the angry reaction of shareholders...and the final cost of the blunder.
This week the company settled Australia's biggest shareholder class action for A$144.5 million (US$125.7 million), a court heard.
Some 4 000 shareholders sued, claiming the firm overstated its profits and issued a subsequent profit forecast that
was unattainable, making its share price plunge when the true state of the company was revealed. The decline resulted in some A$2 billion being wiped from the value of Aristocrat shares when the crisis exploded into the headlines in 2003.
This week a Federal Court in Sydney approved the agreement between Aristocrat and Dorajay Pty Ltd, which represented the shareholdings. Dorajay's lawyers said the payout represented an 0.80 cent return for every dollar shareholders lost before interest -- the highest on record in Australia.
The shareholders' legal representative, Bernard Murphy of legal firm Maurice Blackman, pulled no punches when he addressed media reporters outside the court following the agreement, claiming that Aristocrat management had engaged in "a serious episode of misconduct."
"It was involved in businesses in South America that weren't travelling the way they hoped, and instead of revealing the true state of its business to the market it chose to fudge," Murphy said. "When the true state of the company was revealed to the market its share price collapsed and two billion dollars came off its market capitalisation."
Aristocrat's share price dropped from more than A$5 to less than a dollar almost immediately, although they have since recovered.
Arriving at a settlement figure must have been an interesting negotiation. Aristocrat initially claimed that estimated damages suffered by shareholders were around A$10 million to A$20 million dollars, but the final settlement reached was significantly above that at A$136 million dollars in damages and A$8.5 million in costs.
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