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Accounting | Peer-Reviewed Research

Who Determines an Asset’s Value?

New research reveals that companies often “opinion shop” to shape their financial reality.

Based on research by Shiva Sivaramakrishnan, Minjae Koo, and Yuping Zhao

New research reveals that companies often “opinion shop” to shape their financial reality.

  • Companies have two primary motives for switching third-party evaluators: "opinion shopping" and "objective valuation."
  • "Opinion shopping" makes an asset look better on paper — but can lead to managerial opportunism.
  • "Objective valuation" might seem like an accounting loss — but aligns company assets with their true market value.
  • Of the two motives for switching evaluators, “opinion shopping” is more dominant.

Firms often have to estimate the “fair value” of their investments, meaning they have to declare what an asset is worth on the market. To avoid the potential for bias and manipulation, companies will use third-party services to provide an objective estimate of their assets’ fair value.

But nothing prevents a company from seeking multiple third-party estimates and choosing whichever one suits their purpose.

In a recent study, Shiva Sivaramakrishnan (Rice Business) and co-authors Minjae Koo (The Chinese University of Hong Kong) and Yuping Zhao (University of Houston) examine two motives for switching third-party evaluators: “opinion shopping” and “objective valuation.”

Firms that opinion shop are looking for a third-party source to make their investments look better on paper. For example, if Service A says an asset is worth $80 — and that means the company would have to take an accounting loss — the company might switch to Service B, which says the asset is worth $90. By using the higher estimate from Service B, the company avoids a loss.

Opinion shopping can be a dangerous practice, both on a macro level and for the specific firms that engage in it. Not only does it reduce the quality of fair value estimates for everyone, it means some company assets are potentially overvalued. And if those assets ever decline in value for real, the company will eventually take a loss.

Moreover, opinion shopping opens the door to managerial opportunism. If assets are valued more highly, managers are likely to receive credit and potentially use that perceived accomplishment to advance their careers.

There are reasons for companies to go the other way. In the hypothetical scenario above, our company might switch from Service B ($90) to Service A ($80) to receive a more accurate and objective estimate. The “objective valuation” motive helps companies meet regulatory requirements and ensure estimates reflect true market value. What’s more, the objective valuation motive helps curb managerial buccaneering.

The study looks at when and why life insurance companies will switch their third-party review service. The team finds that both motives — opinion shopping and objective valuation — are common. Sometimes companies want to better align their fair value estimates with what similar assets are trading for in the market. Other times, they want assets to look better on paper.

Of the two motives, opinion shopping is the more dominant, particularly when they are in conflict with each other. On the whole, evidence suggests that companies switch price sources strategically to inflate estimates and avoid losses, rather than to get more accurate estimates.

The study has implications for investors, regulators and researchers. “Opinion shopping” could be prevalent in non-financial industries, as well — especially public firms with capital market incentives. More disclosure around price sources could improve estimate reliability.

Future research could examine asset valuation practices and motives in other sectors such as banking, real estate and equity investments. Are some industries more prone to opinion shopping than others? What factors make opinion shopping or objective valuation more likely? Are there certain signals or patterns that indicate when a company is opinion shopping versus seeking objectivity?

Answers to these questions could help discern acceptable from unacceptable third-party source switching. And understanding if certain types of companies are more at risk could help regulators and auditors focus their efforts.

The bottom line:

Accurate accounting matters. While external sources are better for measuring the fair value of any given asset, companies can distort the very concept of fair value estimates by changing their source. More rigor, transparency and auditing around price sources could curb manipulation and improve estimate reliability.

Shiva Sivaramakrishnan is the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Accounting at Rice Business.

For more information, read “Third-Party Source Switches: Objective Valuation or Fair Value Opinion Shopping?” The Accounting Review 98.7 (2023): 405-433.

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