Understanding Why Financial Reporting Exists

I was asked to answer a question on financial accounting concepts on Quora.   I felt that it is an issue worthy of sharing on my blog as well as we don’t often discuss why we have expectations when we prepare and audit financial statements – other than to say GAAP requires it.

The most basic concept underlying financial reporting (and the accounting procedures used to accumulate the data) is investment decision-making.  Everything Mahesh spoke to, and what I am going to elaborate on, is premised on the need for some information for investment decisions.

FASB and IASB have concept statements.  I am most familiar with US GAAP which is put out by FASB.  But I believe both standards setters agree overall on the concept of information necessary for decision making.

Ask yourself, if you were ready to make a decision to invest in a company, what information would you like to know?  Conceptually, the argument goes, you would like to know the business’ financial position – its balance sheet; its operations – profit and loss statement; and its cash flows.  These collectively make up the general purpose financial statements.
Oftentimes, the information presented on the face of one of those statements does not tell the whole story.  Take inventory as an example.  Lets say the statement of financial position says only that inventory is $1.0 Million.  As an investor, your decision to invest might change if you knew that the inventory was all finished goods: Or perhaps it is all work-in-process.  Knowing additional details which can impact an investment decision might still be necessary, the standards require additional disclosure – footnotes – to help investors put those statements into context and provide details that otherwise do not exist.
These statements do not exist in a vacuum.  They are the accumulation and summarization of thousands and millions of transactions.  And to ensure the necessary information is presented timely, is a faithful representation of what actually happened, and is relevant, the standard setters created accounting principles.

And to ensure that investors receive accurate information based on these guiding concepts, it is important that reported information be verifiable (can be audited successful) and comparable to others in similar situations.  This is why there are industry-specific principles and there is a focus on establishing an effective audit trail.  Investors should be wary where there is first, not an independent examination of the statements and second, where the underlying accounting is totally dissimilar to everyone else in the industry.  Sadly, it happens all too often.

If you are a small business and your bank requires you to prepare GAAP financial statements, it is important to understand that this is what they are looking for: Investment Decision information.  It doesn’t matter if the financial statements are prepared by your bookkeeper or audited by an independent CPA.  Your business is responsible for sharing financial information that the bank can use to make an investment (loan) decision.  You have an obligation to ensure it is accurate, tells the whole story, can be compared to other businesses that are in the same industry as you, and ensure that whatever is recorded can be independently verified.

You, management, are responsible for the accumulation, summarization and reporting of the information.  Management decides when to recognize revenues; or to have it be reported as unearned because the job isn’t done; Management decides if a product was actually sold; or was actually shipped to another warehouse across the country.  There is an undeniable tension between management sharing accurate accounting information and investors receivable actionable investment information.  You see this played out frequently in the press when you see a stock slide because a company missed its revenue target.

Accounting principles exist to put the concept into context.  Accounting principles are not complex or difficult to employ, business is moving farther and farther away from simple transactions of shifting values from producer to consumer.  Complex transactions make for challenging financial statements as investors cannot see where value begins and ends.  So ask yourself, do you really want to invest in a company where you can’t tell who owns what and who is owed what?  If not, demand that GAAP be followed; otherwise:

Caveat Emptor baby.

 

 

What to Look for in an Auditor

“Why should we engage C.O.R.E.?”, asked the condominium board president.  It is an interesting question which deserves an entertaining answer.  And, even though Kubae says I should never do it, I always answer that question with another question.

“What do you hope to get from your audit?”

If you are looking for an independent CPA firm who believes that it is important to hold management accountable, then you should engage C.O.R.E.  If you want to feel good that the financial information you are using for decision-making is accurate, you should engage C.O.R.E.  If you want to understand how to better protect your neighbor’s hard earned money, then you should engage C.O.R.E.

If you are interviewing audit firms for your association, you may want to think about asking the following questions of the prospective firms:

  • Have you ever had a disagreement with management?  If so, explain the disagreement and how it was handled
  • Who do you believe is responsible for the preparation of the financial statement?
  • What steps do you take to ensure that client money isn’t misappropriated by management?
  • How do you handle GAAP departures when management doesn’t record a transaction correctly?
  • What are the three biggest weaknesses you see in association accounting overall?
  • Who do you believe is your client?
  • Have you ever caught management doing something which showed a significant weakness in the internal control structure?
    • What did you say about it?
    • Did you help management resolve it?
    • Did you help the board understand the weakness and how to address it in the future?

Each of these questions will give you insight into how the auditor might respond to your particular needs when it comes to auditing your association’s financial statements.  It is important to remember that your role, as directors, is oversight, not operations.  You are there to make sure that the management team you hired is presenting accurate information that you can use in making decisions about your association.

You want to make sure your auditor takes their role as independent, objective auditors seriously.  They do not need to go out of their way to find fault with management, but the reality is, they have almost total control over how your money is being spent.  You should want your auditor to focus on their spending of your money to ensure it is done to support your association.

As a director, you want to feel confident that the financial information that management presents is accurate and follows some standard.  How your auditor handles a GAAP departure could be important as the more management does things “their own way” the harder it is for you and your neighbors to follow it.  Make sure your auditor challenges management’s accounting treatment so you get the best information possible.

You want to feel confident that your auditor is looking for risk of material errors.  Your auditor should have a strong idea of what could go wrong and plan the audit for those key risk areas.  Thinks like spending money over the approved budget; paying themselves above their contract without the board reviewing the additional charges; hiring businesses where there is a conflict of interest.  The auditor should be on the look-out for those activities.

Keep in mind that the auditor works for the board.  This means you will want to interview the auditor and approve the audit engagement letter.  The audit is focused on management’s work so you never want to allow management to select the auditor.  Keeping these questions and approach in mind will help you get the maximum value from your audit and auditing professional.

Have a great Monday.