Cookie jar accounting occurs when a business sets up excessive reserves in profitable periods and draws down these reserves during lower-profit periods. The intent is to give the impression that the organization generates more consistent results than is really the case. When investors believe that a firm is able to consistently meet its earnings targets, they tend to place a higher value on its stock. There is a greater temptation to use cookie jar accounting among publicly held businesses, since doing so can mislead analysts into issuing more favorable reports about them to the investment community. This approach to reporting earnings does not reflect actual results, and so can be considered fraudulent reporting.
Cookie jar reserves can be created either by over-estimating the more common reserves (such as for bad debts) or by taking large one-time charges for expected losses from one-time events, such as acquisitions or downsizings.
The term comes from the practice of using a “cookie jar” of reserves whenever needed.