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Exploring Top Management Language for Signals of Possible Deception: The Words of Satyam’s Chair Ramalinga Raju

Abstract

This paper explores the potential for systematic scrutiny of the language of top management to reveal signals of possible deceptive conduct. The language used in letters signed by Ramalinga Raju, Chair of the Indian multi-national company Satyam, are analysed using a multi-method quantitative approach. We explore the language in Raju’s annual report letters from 2002–2003 to 2007–2008; and in his letter of January 7, 2009 in which he confessed to deceptive conduct. We analyse the frequency of personal pronouns, the tone of positivity or negativity, the frequency of words of extreme emotion and aspects of the characteristics of language use indicated by the DICTION 5.0 text analysis master variable, CERTAINTY. The text of Raju’s letters appears to have been influenced by his self-confessed deceptive behaviour. Raju’s word choice changed noticeably in his five annual report letters prior to the collapse of Satyam as the scale and impact of his financial misstatements increased. The methods presented should be considered for adoption by auditors and regulators—as a way of assessing whether signals emerging from language use warrant closer (including audit) scrutiny of a firm’s financial reporting and governance. They should also be considered for use by monitors of entity risk, such as credit rating agencies and financial analysts.

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Notes

  1. The figures used in the confession letter were stated in Indian Rupees (INR). They have been converted into US dollars at the approximate exchange rate of 1 USD = 48 INR (the average closing rate on 7 January, 2009).

  2. http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/holnus/002200711202070.htm.

  3. These forms are used by those who do not earn an income high enough to be classified as taxable income. By filling out the form people instructed banks not to deduct income tax on the interest they earn on deposits.

  4. Without notice or explanation, Ms. Padmaja failed to attend a pre-arranged meeting with the third author in Chennai on December 11, 2009. Subsequently, she declined to meet with, or speak by telephone with, the third author. Her behaviour lends credence to claims that she had been gagged by more senior, more influential, and better connected colleagues.

  5. We are unable to analyse earlier letters with reliability. The CEO’s letter to shareholders for 2002–2003 was the first such letter issued by Satyam. In prior years, the company adopted a British-style ‘directors’ report’ format for such letters.

  6. For example, Raju stated that he had acted alone when inflating earnings and asset totals in the financial statements. However, it was revealed subsequently that Raju’s brother (a director), the CFO, Vadlamani Srinivas and the Vice President, Financial, G Ramakrishna had also aided and abetted in the alleged fraud. Other material discrepancies arose over the following months between what Raju stated was the total value of the misrepresentation in the confession letter and the actual amounts determined by investigators (Agarwal 2009; Bloomberg News 2009).

  7. The DICTION 5.0 Manual defines NUMERICAL TERMS as ‘Any sum, date, or product specifying the facts in a given case. This dictionary treats each isolated integer as a single “word” and each separate group of integers as a single word. In addition, the dictionary contains common numbers in lexical format (one, tenfold, hundred, zero) as well as terms indicating numerical operations (subtract, divide, multiply, percentage) and quantitative topics (digitise, tally, mathematics). The presumption is that Numerical Terms hyper-specify a claim, thus detracting from its universality’.

  8. Wipro is one of the largest IT services companies in India. For the year ending March 2008, Wipro's revenues were US$ 4.93 billion and profit after tax was US$ 0.8 billion. Similar to Raju at Satyam, Azim had been with the company from its foundation. He also had established a reputation as one of India’s most successful and well-respected businessmen, and had won numerous awards and accolades over the past 20 years. In 2003, Forbes magazine named him one of 10 people globally who have the most ‘power to effect change’. He was also noted as one of the 25 most ‘powerful business leaders outside the US’ In April 2004, Azim was rated among the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine. (http://www.topbusinessentrepreneurs.com/azim-premji.html).

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Acknowledgments

The authors thank Joel Amernic, Naimh Brennan, Nick McKinney, Ravi Purohit, Wally Smieliauskas, Dennis Tourish and our colleagues at the University of Canterbury for their assistance and comments on earlier versions of this paper.

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Correspondence to Tony Mortensen.

Appendices

Appendix 1

Ramalinga Raju’s Confession Letter (dated 7 January, 2009)

[Source: http://www.financialexpress.com/news/satyam-fraud-full-text-of-rajus-letter-to-board/407799/]

To the Board of Directors
Satyam Computer Services Ltd.
From B. Ramalinga Raju
Chairman, Satyam Computer Services Ltd. January 7, 2009
Dear Board Members,
It is with deep regret and tremendous burden that I am carrying on my conscience, that I would like to bring the following facts to your notice:
1. The Balance Sheet carries as of September 30, 2008,
 (a) Inflated (non-existent) cash and bank balances of Rs 5,040 crore (as against Rs 5,361 crore reflected in the books);
 (b) An accrued interest of Rs 376 crore, which is non-existent
 (c) An understated liability of Rs 1,230 crore on account of funds arranged by me;
 (d) An overstated debtors’ position of Rs 490 crore (as against Rs 2,651 reflected in the books);
2. For the September quarter(Q2) we reported a revenue of Rs 2,700 crore and an operating margin of Rs 649 crore (24 per cent of revenue) as against the actual revenues of Rs 2,112 crore and an actual operating margin of Rs 61 crore (3 per cent of revenues). This has resulted in artificial cash and bank balances going up by Rs 588 crore in Q2 alone.
The gap in the balance sheet has arisen purely on account of inflated profits over several years (limited only to Satyam standalone, books of subsidiaries reflecting true performance).
What started as a marginal gap between actual operating profit and the one reflected in the books of accounts continued to grow over the years.
It has attained unmanageable proportions as the size of the company operations grew significantly (annualised revenue run rate of Rs 11,276 crore in the September quarter, 2008, and official reserves of Rs 8,392 crore).
The differential in the real profits and the one reflected in the books was further accentuated by the fact that the company had to carry additional resources and assets to justify a higher level of operations thereby significantly increasing the costs.
Every attempt made to eliminate the gap failed. As the promoters held a small percentage of equity, the concern was that poor performance would result in the takeover, thereby exposing the gap. It was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten.
The aborted Maytas acquisition deal was the last attempt to fill the fictitious assets with real ones. Maytas’ investors were convinced that this is a good divestment opportunity and a strategic fit.
Once Satyam’s problem was solved, it was hoped that Maytas’ payments can be delayed. But that was not to be. What followed in the last several days is common knowledge.
I would like the board to know:
1. That neither myself, nor the Managing Director (including our spouses) sold any shares in the last eight years - excepting for a small proportion declared and sold for philanthropic purposes.
2. That in the last two years a net amount of Rs 1,230 crore was arranged to Satyam (not reflected in the books of Satyam) to keep the operations going by resorting to pledging all the promoter shares and raising funds from known sources by giving all kinds of assurances (statement enclosed only to the members of the board).
Significant dividend payments, acquisitions, capital expenditure to provide for growth did not help matters. Every attempt was made to keep the wheel moving and to ensure prompt payment of salaries to the associates. The last straw was the selling of most of the pledged shares by the lenders on account of margin triggers.
3. That neither me nor the managing director took even one rupee/dollar from the company and have not benefited in financial terms on account of the inflated results.
4. None of the board members, past or present, had any knowledge of the situation in which the company is placed.
Even business leaders and senior executives in the company such as Ram Mynampati, Subu D, T R Anand, Keshab Panda, Virender Agarwal, A S Murthy, Hari T, S V Krishnan, Vijay Prasad, Manish Mehta, Murli V, Shriram Papani, Kiran Kavale, Joe Lagioia, Ravindra Penumetsa, Jayaraman and Prabhakar Gupta are unaware of the real situation as against the books of accounts. None of my or managing directors’ immediate or extended family members has any idea about these issues.
Having put these facts before you, I leave it to the wisdom of the board to take the matters forward. However, I am also taking the liberty to recommend the following steps:
1. A task force has been formed in the last few days to address the situation arising out of the failed Maytas acquisition attempt.
This consists of some of the most accomplished leaders of Satyam: Subu D, T.R. Anand, Keshab Panda and Virendra Agarwal, representing business functions, and A S Murthy, Hari T and Murali V representing support functions.
I suggest that Ram Mynampati be made the chairman of this Task Force to immediately address some of the operational matters on hand. Ram can also act as an interim CEO reporting to the board.
2. Merrill Lynch can be entrusted with the task of quickly exploring some merger opportunities.
3. You may have a ‘restatement of accounts’ prepared by the auditors in light of the facts that I have placed before you.
I have promoted and have been associated with Satyam for well over 20 years now. I have seen it grow from few people to 53,000 people, with 185 Fortune 500 companies as customers and operations in 66 countries. Satyam has established an excellent leadership and competency base at all levels.
I sincerely apologise to all Satyamites and stakeholders, who have made Satyam a special organisation, for the current situation. I am confident they will stand by the company in this hour of crisis.
In light of the above, I fervently appeal to the board to hold together to take some important steps. TR Prasad is well placed to mobilise a support from the government at this crucial time.
With the hope that members of the Task Force and the financial advisor, Merrill Lynch (now Bank of America), will stand by the company at this crucial hour, I am marking copies of the statement to them as well.
Under the circumstances, I am tendering the resignation as the chairman of Satyam and shall continue in this position only till such time the current board is expanded. My continuance is just to ensure enhancement of the board over the next several days or as early as possible.
I am now prepared to subject myself to the laws of the land and face the consequences thereof.
(B Ramalinga Raju)

Appendix 2

Examples of Awards and Personal Accolades Received by Ramalinga Raju

Appendix 3

Positive and Negative Words

[Source: Henry (2008 p. 387)]

POSITIVITY word list
Positive positives success successes successful succeed succeeds succeeding succeeded accomplish accomplishes accomplishing accomplished accomplishment accomplishments strong strength strengths certain certainty definite solid excellent good achieve achieves achieved achieving achievement achievements progress progressing deliver delivers delivered delivering leader leading pleased reward rewards rewarding rewarded opportunity opportunities enjoy enjoys enjoying enjoyed encouraged encouraging up increase increases increasing increased rise rises rising rose risen improve improves improving improved improvement improvements strengthen strengthens strengthening strengthened stronger strongest better best more most above record high higher highest greater greatest larger largest grow grows growing grew grown growth expand expands expanding expanded expansion exceed exceeds exceeded exceeding beat beats beating
NEGATIVITY word list
Negative negatives fail fails failing failure weak weakness weaknesses difficult difficulty hurdle hurdles obstacle obstacles slump slumps slumping slumped uncertain uncertainty unsettled unfavourable downturn depressed disappoint disappoints disappointing disappointed disappointment risk risks risky threat threats penalty penalties down decrease decreases decreasing decreased decline declines declining declined fall falls falling fell fallen drop drops dropping dropped deteriorate deteriorates deteriorating deteriorated worsen worsens worsening weaken weakens weakening weakened worse worst low lower lowest less least smaller smallest shrink shrinks shrinking shrunk below under challenge challenges challenging challenged

Appendix 4

Words of Extreme Negative Emotions and Extreme Positive Emotions

[Source: Larcker and Zakolyukina 2010; * = and words with this stem]

Extreme negative emotions

abominable, abortive, absurd, advers*, ambitious, annihilating, annihilative, atrocious, awful, badly, baffling, barbarous, bias, breach, brokenhearted, brutal*, calamitous, careless*, catchy, challenging, cockeyed, coerce, crafty, craz*, cruel*, crushed, cunning, curious, danger*, daunting, daze*, defect*, degrad*, demanding, demeaning, depress*, derisory, despair*, desperat*, despicable, destroy*, devastat*, devil*, difficult*, dire, direful, disastrous, disgraceful, dodgy, dread*, exasperating, exorbitant, extortionate, fail*, farcical, farfetched, fatal*, fateful, fault*, fearful*, fearsome, fierce, finished, fright*, frustrat*, funny, grave*, griev*, guileful, hard, harebrained, harm, harmed, harmful*, harming, harms, heartbreak*, heartbroke*, heartless*, heartrending, heartsick, hideous, hopeless*, horr*, humbling, humiliat*, hurt*, idiot, idiotic, ignominious, ignor*, implausible, impossible, improbable, inauspicious, inconceivable, inferior*, infuriating, inglorious, insane, insecur*, intimidat*, jerk, jerked, jerks, kayoed, knavish, knocked out, knotty, KOd out, KO’d out, laughable, life-threatening, luckless*, ludicrous*, maddening, madder, maddest, maniac*, menace, mess, messy, miser*, misfortunate, mortifying, muddle, nast*, nonsensical, outrag*, overwhelm*, painf*, panic*, paranoi*, pathetic*, peculiar*, pessimis*, pickle, piti*, precarious, preconception, prejudic*, preposterous, pressur*, problem*, reek*, resent*, ridicul*, roughshod, ruin*, savage*, scandalous, scourge, serious, seriously, severe*, shake*, shaki*, shaky, shame*, shock*, silly, skeptic*, slimy, slippery, squeeze, steep, strange, stunned, stupefied, stupid*, suffer, suffered, sufferer*, suffering, suffers, sunk, terribl*, terrified, terrifies, terrify, terrifying, terror*, threat*, thwarting, ticked, tough*, tragic*, transgress, trauma*, tremendous, trick*, trigger-happy, ugl*, unbelievable, unconscionable, unconvincing, unimaginable, unimportant, unlucky, unmanageable, unspeakable, unsuccessful*, untoward, unworthy, usurious, vehement, vexing, vicious*, victim*, vile, violat*, violent*, vulnerab*, washed-up, wicked*, withering, wonky, worst, worthless*, wretched, very bad.

Extreme positive emotions

amaz*, A-one, astonish*, awe-inspiring, awesome, awful, bang-up, best, bless*, brillian*, by all odds, careful*, challeng*, cherish*, confidence, confident, confidently, convinc*, crack, cracking, dandy, deadly, definite, definitely, delectabl*, delicious*, deligh*, deucedly, devilishly, dynam*, eager*, emphatically, enormous, excel*, excit*, exult, fab, fabulous*, fantastic*, first-rate, flawless*, genuinely, glori*, gorgeous*, grand, grande*, gratef*, great, groovy, hero*, huge, illustrious, immense, in spades, in truth, incredibl*, insanely, inviolable, keen*, luck, lucked, lucid*, lucks, lucky, luscious, madly, magnific*, marvellous, marvelous, neat*, nifty, outstanding, peachy, perfect*, phenomenal, potent, privileg*, rattling, redoubtable, rejoice, scrumptious*, secur*, sincer*, slap-up, smashing, solid, splend*, strong*, substantial, succeed*, success*, super, superb, superior*, suprem*, swell, terrific*, thankf*, tiptop, topnotch, treasur*, tremendous, triumph*, truly, truth*, unassailable, unbelievable, unquestionably, vast, wonderf*, wondrous, wow*, yay, yays, very good.

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Craig, R., Mortensen, T. & Iyer, S. Exploring Top Management Language for Signals of Possible Deception: The Words of Satyam’s Chair Ramalinga Raju. J Bus Ethics 113, 333–347 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-012-1307-5

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Keywords

  • CEO
  • Deception
  • DICTION
  • India
  • Language
  • Letters
  • Linguistics
  • Risk
  • Tone