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Risk reporting by the largest UK companies: readability and lack of obfuscation

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Purpose ‐ The purpose of this paper is to examine risk disclosures by UK companies within their annual reports. Tests are performed to measure the level of the readability of the risk disclosures and to assess whether directors are deliberately obscuring bad risk news. Design/methodology/approach ‐ The paper draws upon methodologies developed in prior empirical studies of annual report readability. Thus it uses the Flesch Reading Ease formula to measure the readability of the risk disclosures and coefficients of variation are used to measure obfuscation. A content analysis approach is adopted to identify risk disclosures. Findings ‐ The paper finds that the mean Flesch reading ease ratings for the sample companies are all below 50 indicating that the level of readability of the risk disclosures is difficult or very difficult and this supports prior research examining the readability of sample passages in annual reports. No evidence is found to suggest that directors are deliberately obfuscating or concealing bad risk news through their writing style. Research limitations/implications ‐ The paper also finds that the Flesch reading ease ratings measure the readability, not the understandability, of disclosures and whilst actions can be taken to minimise problems associated with reliability when performing content analysis they cannot be wholly eliminated. Practical implications ‐ The paper shows that there have been calls for improved risk disclosures to enable stakeholders to better understand a company's risk position. Requiring directors to issue extra risk information will not, however, lead to enhanced risk communication unless the readability of the risk disclosures is also improved. Originality/value ‐ In this paper it is shown that there have been no prior studies that focus upon testing for readability and obfuscation in risk disclosures. It is important that transparent risk information is provided to the marketplace and therefore this study is valuable in its examination of the clarity of communication of published risk information.

Keywords: Annual reports; Companies; Disclosure; Risk analysis; United Kingdom

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2007-07-31

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