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Hertz Bankruptcy! Do I Have Your Attention?

September 30, 2009, by - Also by this author

Hertz has filed a defamation suit against Audit Integrity, a research firm that labels Hertz as one of 20 publicly traded companies with a market cap of greater than $1 billion that have the highest probability of declaring bankruptcy.

First of all, who is Audit Integrity to make such a claim? Audit Integrity calls itself "a leading independent research firm that rates more than 12,000 public companies in North American and Europe based on their corporate integrity." 

The company has been making waves by marketing a bankruptcy risk model that factors in the possibility of fraud. 

Audit Integrity has the stamp of approval from the likes of Forbes and Fidelity Investments. I'm told they're legit. And in this day and age of continuing Wall Street scandals, we can all get behind a company that measures corporate integrity, right? 

In its press release that names those 20 companies, Audit Integrity states: "The findings suggest that fraudulent accounting and poor governance impact bankruptcy risk in addition to more generally accepted factors such as measures of liquidity, leverage and profitability."

Further, from Jack Zwingli, CEO of Audit Integrity: "Market volatility and sudden downturns such as we have been experiencing must be factored into bankruptcy risk. Fraud also plays a part, especially when companies are faced with survival decisions. These are the toughest companies to identify because, on paper, they appear solvent. Our model uncovers the underlying fraud that can be behind seemingly healthy financial statements."

And then Audit Integrity goes on to list the 20 companies most vulnerable to bankruptcy. Yet neither in the press release nor on the Web site does the firm get into specifics regarding why each company is a bankruptcy candidate. Nor does it get into specifics on possible fraud perpetrated at those companies.

Well, I suppose you'll get specifics when you subscribe to its service.

As a marketer, I appreciate the audacity. It's a good way to get press. As a journalist, the insinuation of impropriety without full disclosure of your reasoning is, at the very least, lacking integrity.

Hertz, its investors and customers deserve the reasoning behind the claim to be out in the open. So do the other 19 companies listed.   

The matter is exacerbated when the general media picks up the story. CNBC headlined a segment "The Next Great Bankruptcy" and interviewed Zwingli, who made general statements about methodology while the 20 companies flashed on the screen. Of course, in cable news there's little time to examine the efficacy of the model. 

No wonder Hertz is pissed.

I've been asking around to understand the fallout from the financial communities. What is the sound of shrugging shoulders?

Analysts are not jumping to Audit Integrity's defense, and they're dismissing the possibility of a Hertz bankruptcy. This seems to be a play by a small firm to provoke controversy, publicity and business.

Winning a defamation lawsuit will be very difficult for Hertz. Hertz is seeking monetary damages, including punitive damages, and a retraction. It most likely won't get any of the three. But the lawsuit could quickly quash a story that might have gotten whipped up into negative market speculation. On the other hand, it has gotten one analyst to wonder why Hertz "doth protest too much," and thus to dig deeper into Hertz financials. (No improprieties found.)

Contrary to a company headed for bankruptcy, Hertz successfully refinanced part of its fleet facility last week, at a very good rate. Bond investors are clearly endorsing the business model. Stocks are steady. In this case, the market appears to have assessed and dismissed Audit Integrity's analysis on its own.

Then yesterday I saw something called SmartTrend, a "proprietary pattern recognition system." It had called Hertz stock an "uptrend" back on July 1. If I had followed SmarTrend's advice and invested, I'd have seen a 30.7 percent return today.

This 20/20 hindsight is killing me, not that I would've bought Hertz stock in July. But at least it got my attention.

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Chris Brown

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Chris is the executive editor of Business Fleet Magazine and Auto Rental News. He covers all aspects of the fleet world.

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