HOUSTON – Halliburton Co. (HAL) on Wednesday denied charges it adopted "aggressive" accounting policies to boost revenue while Vice President Dick Cheney was in charge of the oilfield services and engineering firm.
The New York Times published an article Wednesday highlighting a change in Dallas-based Halliburton's accounting policies and quoting accounting specialists who said the change stretched -- and may even have broken -- accounting rules.
Under the change, implemented by Halliburton in the late 1990s, the company began to recognize some of its unresolved claims against engineering and construction clients as revenue, even though the amounts of money at stake were disputed.
Vice President Cheney was chief executive of the company from 1995 to 2000.
A Halliburton spokeswoman said the move was reasonable and was even required under generally accepted accounting principles if the company judged it would probably collect on the claims, many of which resulted from cost overruns on big projects.
Halliburton's shares were not hurt by the questions raised about the company's accounting policies, closing up 57 cents, or 3.3 percent, at $18.
Investor concerns about questionable accounting policies have hit the stock prices of several major companies in the wake of the Enron Corp. bankruptcy, especially in the energy marketing and trading business once dominated by that company.
"AGGRESSIVE AND IMPATIENT"
Bala Dharan, professor of accounting at Rice University in Houston, said Halliburton did not seem to have broken any rules, but added that he was not entirely comfortable with its use of so-called accrual accounting in this case.
"Most people would say you're probably going to make the money anyway, but you're being a bit too aggressive and impatient, greedy perhaps, in reporting it earlier," he said.
Halliburton's accounting change was first disclosed in the company's 1999 annual report, published in March 2000.
Company spokeswoman Wendy Hall said the change was made in response to a shift in the terms of large engineering and construction projects toward fixed-price deals and away from traditional "cost-plus" deals that guarantee contractors a certain profit margin over and above their costs.
"We believe it was reasonable to recognize at least part of the revenues from the claims, even while they remained in dispute," Hall said.
Halliburton collected on many of these claims and eventually wrote off any amounts it was unable to recover, Hall said.
Recent annual reports show that Halliburton booked $234 million in such claims as receivables at the end of 2001, up from $89 million at the end of 1998.
The documents do not disclose what portion of those claims were booked as revenues, nor do they disclose the amount of any charges or losses relating to uncollected claims.
"That type of accounting is not fraudulent. It's just a question of how aggressive management wants to be," said J.C. Waller, an analyst and portfolio manager with Icon Funds in Englewood, Colorado, which does not hold Halliburton shares.
Halliburton reported total revenue of $13 billion in 2001, of which $4.3 billion was derived from its engineering and construction business.
The company's stock came under heavy selling pressure in late 2001 and early 2002 as a result of investor concerns about asbestos damages claims against the company.
Most of the asbestos claims against Halliburton stem from the company's $7.7 billion acquisition of Dresser Industries when Cheney was in charge of Halliburton.