December 20, 2013 | Faculty
December 17, 2013
Abraham J. Briloff, an accounting expert whose trenchant and sometimes scathing analyses of corporate financial records often sent investors scurrying to dump their stocks, died on Thursday at his home in Great Neck, N.Y. He was 96.
His death was announced by his family.
Mr. Briloff practiced accounting and taught the subject as a professor at Baruch College in Manhattan. But it was the articles he wrote for Barron’s that turned him into something of a celebrity, revered by investors and vilified but also respected by companies and their accounting firms.
He was legally blind and relied on graduate students and his daughter Leonore to read financial statements to him.
Analyses of the impact of Mr. Briloff’s reporting showed how devastating it could be.
His work frequently caused a company’s stock price to fall, compared with the overall market, and the effect was often long-lasting.
“Our results indicated that Briloff was better able to foresee the coming decline in performance than the market, on average,” Hemang Desai and Prem C. Jain wrote in an analysis of his work published in Financial Analysts Journal in 2004.
In 1992, for example, Mr. Briloff wrote an article for Barron’s highlighting, among other things, how Waste Management and its auditor, Arthur Andersen, had used attenuated depreciation of landfill sites to help enhance its earnings. The company’s chief financial officer vigorously protested, as did Arthur Andersen.
But 10 years later, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a complaint against senior executives of Waste Management, including the chief financial officer, who had attacked Mr. Briloff’s analysis. The commission accused the executives of perpetrating “a massive financial fraud” that had started the year Mr. Briloff wrote the article.
Abraham Jacob Briloff was born on July 19, 1917, in Manhattan. His parents, Benjamin and Anna, were immigrants from Russia. His father was a butcher and his mother a seamstress.
He graduated from the School of Business at the City College of New York in 1937, winning an award for academic scholarship in the study of accounting. It was the first of many such accolades. He went on to teach bookkeeping and stenography in high school, earning money on the side by preparing and reviewing tax returns for a midsize accounting firm, which later merged into Seidman & Seidman.
He continued teaching, but at City College, where he held night classes. In 1951 he started his own accounting firm. In 1967 he wrote his first book, “The Effectiveness of Accounting Communication,” which was based on his doctoral thesis. He considered it his best book, according to an account of his life based on interviews with him by E. Richard Criscione, although his other books were better known. They include “The Truth About Corporate Accounting” and “Unaccountable Accounting: Games Accountants Play.”
In the late 1960s, Mr. Briloff began to emerge as a critic of his own profession, attacking practices and standards that in his opinion did not conform to “generally accepted accounting principles.”
He also began writing for Barron’s, which was unusual for an accounting professor.
“Accounting academics typically wrote in academic journals, where they were read by other academics,” said Stephen A. Zeff, a professor of accounting at Rice University.
“But Abe wrote for a broader audience in Barron’s, which meant the whole financial world saw what he wrote and sent lawyers running in the direction of the courts to bring lawsuits against him.”
Mr. Briloff is survived by his daughters, Leonore Briloff and Alice Ebenstein, and a granddaughter.
Originally published by The New York Times