Fiduciary Shortcuts To Valuation Can Be Dangerous

Despite a plethora of information about how to implement shortcuts to enhance workplace productivity, fiduciaries need to ask themselves whether a "jack in the box" approach that equates speed with care and diligence is worth pursuing.

This topic of shortcuts came up recently in a discussion with appraisal colleagues about the dangers of using a "plug and play" model to estimate value. Although New York Times journalist Mark Cohen rightly cites the merits of having a business valuation done, he lists all sorts of new tools such as iPhone valuation apps that some might conclude are valid substitutes for the real thing. Rest assured that punching in a few numbers versus hiring an independent and knowledgeable third party specialist to undertake a thorough assessment of value is a big mistake, especially if the underlying assumptions and algorithms of a "quick fix" solution are unknown to the user. See "Do You Know What Your Business is Worth? You Should," January 30, 2013.

It's bad enough that a small company owner opts for a drive-in appraisal. It's arguably worse when institutional investors do so, especially as their portfolios are increasingly chock a block with "hard to value" holdings. In the event that a valuation incorrectly reflects the extent to which an investment portfolio can decline, all sorts of nasty things can occur. A pension, endowment or foundation could end up overpaying fees to its asset managers. Any attempts to hedge could be thwarted by having too much or too little protection in place due to incorrect valuation numbers. Asset allocation decisions could be distorted which in turn could mean that certain asset management relationships are redundant or insufficient.

Poor valuations also invite litigation or enforcement or both. As I wrote in "Financial Model Mistakes Can Cost Millions of Dollars," Expert Witnesses, American Bar Association, Section of Litigation, May 31, 2011:

"Care must be taken to construct a model and to test it. Underlying assumptions must be revisited on an ongoing basis, preferably by an independent expert who will not receive a raise or bonus tied to flawed results from a bad model. Someone has to kick the proverbial tires to make sure that answers make sense and to minimize the adverse consequences associated with mistakes in a formula, bad assumptions, incorrect use, wild results that bear no resemblance to expected outcomes, difficulty in predicting outputs, and/or undue complexity that makes it hard for others to understand and replicate outputs. Absent fraud or sloppiness, precise model results may be expensive to produce and therefore unrealistic in practice. As a consequence, a “court or other user may find a model acceptable if relaxing some of the assumptions does not dramatically affect the outcome.” Susan Mangiero, “The Risks of Ignoring Model Risk” in Litigation Services Handbook: The Role of the Financial Expert (Roman L. Weil et al, eds., John Wiley & Sons, 3d ed. 2005).

In recent months, it is noteworthy that regulators have pushed valuation process and policies further up the list of enforcement priorities. Indeed, in reading various complaints that allege bad valuation policies and procedures, I have been surprised at the increased level of specificity cited by regulators about what they think should have been done by individuals with fiduciary oversight responsibilities. Besides the focus of the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has brought actions against multiple fund managers in the last quarter alone. Consider the valuation requirements of new Dodd-Frank rules (and overseas equivalent regulatory focus) and it is clear that questions about how numbers and models are derived will continue to be asked.

For further reference, interested readers can check out the following items:

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