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The role of accrual accounting in restricting dividends to shareholders

  • Christian Leuz

This paper addresses the question why net earnings and other accrual accounting numbers are frequently used to restrict dividends to shareholders. Even though this role of accrual accounting is widely accepted in the literature, a theory explaining the role of accruals in dividend restrictions is still in its early stages. Building on the principal-agent framework, I argue that basic features of the accrual process can be viewed as arising from the demand for dividend restrictions mitigating debt-related incentive problems. This explanation is consistent with the observation that, historically, debt contracting, dividend restrictions and the development of accrual accounting have been closely related. The basic idea is that the use of transactions and events in the accrual process leads to a contingent specification of the upper bound on dividends in an earnings-based constraint. Transactions and events used in the accrual process can be viewed as imperfect, but verifiable indicators for (unverifiable) determinants of debt-related incentive problems. This general idea is applied to incentive problems that regularly arise in a multi-period context. The paper demonstrates that the accrual process may mitigate distortions in shareholders' investment decisions using provisions and depreciation charges as examples.

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Article provided by Taylor & Francis Journals in its journal European Accounting Review.

Volume (Year): 7 (1998)
Issue (Month): 4 ()
Pages: 579-604

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Handle: RePEc:taf:euract:v:7:y:1998:i:4:p:579-604
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  1. Christian Leuz & Dominic Deller & Michael Stubenrath, 1997. "An International Comparison of Accounting-Based Payout Restrictions in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany," Accounting and Business Research, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 28(2), pages 111-129, July.
  2. Jensen, Michael C. & Meckling, William H., 1976. "Theory of the firm: Managerial behavior, agency costs and ownership structure," Journal of Financial Economics, Elsevier, vol. 3(4), pages 305-360, October.
  3. Dechow, Patricia M., 1994. "Accounting earnings and cash flows as measures of firm performance : The role of accounting accruals," Journal of Accounting and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 18(1), pages 3-42, July.
  4. John, Kose & Kalay, Avner, 1982. " Costly Contracting and Optimal Payout Constraints," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 37(2), pages 457-70, May.
  5. Smith, Clifford Jr. & Warner, Jerold B., 1979. "On financial contracting : An analysis of bond covenants," Journal of Financial Economics, Elsevier, vol. 7(2), pages 117-161, June.
  6. Kalay, Avner, 1982. "Stockholder-bondholder conflict and dividend constraints," Journal of Financial Economics, Elsevier, vol. 10(2), pages 211-233, July.
  7. Myers, Stewart C., 1977. "Determinants of corporate borrowing," Journal of Financial Economics, Elsevier, vol. 5(2), pages 147-175, November.
  8. Smith, Clifford Jr. & Watts, Ross L., 1992. "The investment opportunity set and corporate financing, dividend, and compensation policies," Journal of Financial Economics, Elsevier, vol. 32(3), pages 263-292, December.
  9. Healy, Paul M. & Palepu, Krishna G., 1990. "Effectiveness of accounting-based dividend covenants," Journal of Accounting and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 12(1-3), pages 97-123, January.
  10. Duke, Joanne C. & Hunt, Herbert III, 1990. "An empirical examination of debt covenant restrictions and accounting-related debt proxies," Journal of Accounting and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 12(1-3), pages 45-63, January.
  11. El-Gazzar, Samir & Pastena, Victor, 1990. "Negotiated accounting rules in private financial contracts," Journal of Accounting and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 12(4), pages 381-396, March.
  12. Press, Eric G. & Weintrop, Joseph B., 1990. "Accounting-based constraints in public and private debt agreements : Their association with leverage and impact on accounting choice," Journal of Accounting and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 12(1-3), pages 65-95, January.
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