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.

 

 

How Small Business Can Apply GAAP Successfully

There are two big GAAP changes coming up that could have a major impact on small business if decision makers do not start thinking about the issues.  These are changes to lease accounting and the new revenue recognition standards.  The lease accounting is probably the more challenging of the two, as I will hopefully explain below.

New Lease Standards

The new lease standards will challenge every small business who needs access to capital and where the money people want GAAP financial statements.  So, if you are even thinking of going public or taking on substantial bank debt, you need to think about implementing the new lease standards.

The new lease standards now require you to record an asset and a liability as though you bought the asset on a contract.  You then amortize (depreciate) the new asset over the lease term.  This is substantially different from old GAAP which handled leases off balance sheet – meaning payments were treated as an expense in the period incurred.  The commitment for the lease was then reported in the disclosures.

Obviously, the kicker here is that you will now have additional debt on your books which did not exist before.  And like all debt, the current portion, that amount due in the next twelve months, is considered a current liability.  So businesses with tight current ratios (say 1.1:1.0) and an affirmative covenant to maintain a current ratio of 1.0:1.0 may find themselves out of compliance.  Noncompliance is a default condition.

So, if you are thinking about leasing equipment you may want to reconsider this approach IF GAAP statements are a business requirement.

Recognizing Revenue from Service Contracts

This is a major rewrite for GAAP but is probably will not have a huge impact on most small businesses.  Yes, conceptually the issue exists, but most small businesses do not have agreements with customers which extend for long periods of time.  But, where your business does have an ongoing customer relationship where money is changed hands intermittently and service is on-going, then you will want to start looking at this ASC.

The biggest change is realizing that billing a customer no longer drives revenue.  For QuickBooks users, this could cause problems.  As an example, lets say your business enters into a maintenance contract which runs for twelve months.  You agree that the client gets up to 20 hours of on-call service plus a 5 hour preventative maintenance visit monthly.  The on-call hours do not roll-over and you charge $100 per hour for any hours over 20.

Historically, you know that your clients use about 300 hours additional during the year and you anticipate that this new client will be the same.  The new ASC, ASC 606, would require you to anticipate this when you recognize revenues.

What is happening is that we are separating out the revenues from what customers are going to pay.  This separation is a good thing, even though it may not seem like it.  But anyone who has ever worked with contractors and percentage of completion will understand this concept.  Billings are the offset to the accounts receivable and costs and gross profit on contracts is the offset to revenues.  The separation will make almost all businesses with contractual relationships with customers record revenues similar to contractors.

This is because we are moving into a transfer of control (knowledge, ability, compute cycles, etc.) instead of transfers of products.  Stores will likely continue their accounting the way they used to; unless they have after-sale service offerings.  Then, this will become a little more complex but still somewhat like what you are already doing.  But you need to start analyzing your processes now to see what can remain the same and what you need to change – assuming GAAP is required.

If you have questions or would like to discuss how the new accounting standards might impact your business, make sure you talk with your CPA.  Or, if you would like some help understanding what is about to happen, feel free to contact me with your questions.  We are here to help.

Have a great day.

To Whom does the Auditor Answer?

One of my google alerts brought an interesting article about the auditor and the relationship the audit firm has with management and the board.  It seems that many boards are concerned that the auditor appears aligned with management and not the shareholders.  This is, sadly, not a new problem, but it is one that C.O.R.E. is trying to address is our own little world of auditing.

At C.O.R.E., we understand our loyalty lies to the reader of the financial statements – that is, the shareholders.  We are engaged by the board on behalf of the owners to audit management.  Ensuring that current and prospective owners get the best information about their association is key to our success, but sometimes getting owners the best information means upsetting management.

Upsetting management, however, potentially hurts the pocketbook of the auditing CPA firm.  In many situations, management offers very profitable consulting opportunities to the auditor.  Systems design, software evaluation, and other arrangements are absolutely essential to the financial health of an organization and a CPA is highly qualified to offer those services.  The problem is the potential for the auditor to be compromised – that is, does the auditor get the consulting gig because they went soft on management?

If you don’t think it is a very real possibility think again.  Can you imagine anyone hiring a consultant who just got through bashing them?  If a CPA firm had the chance to earn $100,000 consulting with management or $30,000 auditing the client (or both hopefully), is it possible that the auditor might turn a blind eye to a problem found on audit for the chance to earn more money?

And in the small and medium sized entity market, it is potentially even more painful.  The small CPA firm gets most of its new business by referral.  But referrals are hard to come by when your work upsets management.  This has impacted us directly – we have had to issue specific communication about management violating internal control systems to an entity’s board.  The Chair of the board was also the president who hired his son, the person who broke the rules.  That organization and six other companies found a new CPA firm because they wanted someone less “negative”.   Seven entities is a lot of billing.  Financially, would we have been better off remaining silent?

This is not an attempt to justify the auditor’s failure to live up to their responsibility to protect owners and stakeholders.  An auditor who accepts a consulting job with a client needs to consider it a bribe, or worse, an attempt to make them complicit in management’s failure.  That is the auditor’s failure.

But the greater failure is on behalf of the boards of directors who have the primary responsibility to protect the shareholders.  When you ask management to interview auditors, when you accept management’s recommendation to terminate the CPA, when you accept management’s excuses for their misdemeanors, you are abrogating your responsibility.

But you can start to address the problem.  It will require boards to start holding management accountable.  And, when it comes to engaging the auditor to attest to your organization’s financial statements:

You, not management, should

  • request proposals from auditors
  • interview the auditor
  • determine if the auditor takes any fees from management for consulting
  • ask how auditors get clients – board or management referral
  • never allow management to dictate non-GAAP policies without auditor approval
  • interview new auditors every 3-5 years
  • demand that the auditor refuse to accept any consulting arrangement with management

As long as the board, or its audit committee, continues to allow management any involvement in the process of selecting, engaging and compensating auditors, this problem will not go away.  The board must make it clear to management that the auditor is the board’s tool to review management and its adherence to appropriate accounting policy and not someone who is there to help management look good.  And the board must make it clear to the auditor they look to them to protect the owners and their investment.  This is your chance to hold both auditor and management accountable, will you step up to the challenge?

You take the left, I’ll take the right

I recently finished re-reading Michael Gerber’s “The E-Myth Revisited”.  It is one of my go-to books whenever I find an organization that appears to be dysfunctional.  I find myself using parts of his model on my own organizations – since typically professional firms believe everyone should do everything.  This isn’t to knock professional firms but this approach is the single biggest obstacle to healthy and effective growth that I know.

“You take corporations and I take LLC’s”, seems like a great business model for accountants but it is simply a permutation of the “You take the left and I take the right” approach to management.  It doesn’t address the actual needs of the business and it doesn’t leave room for growth.  How do you hire an employee to fit that sort of arrangement?

It is even worse for other types of businesses.  I have worked hard to try and straighten out small businesses who grew into a disaster.  It is in those instances that I find comfort in the E-Myth; technicians who didn’t want to work for a boss suddenly have the worst boss in the world and so do his 12 employees.  All of whom are stepping on each other, tripping over inventory, losing tools, upsetting customers and generally eating up profits.

And in the meantime the owner is working 14-16 hours a day 7 days a week. Until he collapses.  What was the owner doing in those hours?  Everyone else’s job.

Organization, structure, discipline are tough to live with.  I get it.  As Mr. Gerber implies, you start your business because you want to simply work – you want a job.  You want to do it your way, meeting your customers needs by you always being available.  And, as he points out, it can’t work.  You simply don’t know it yet.

The problem is inertia.  Actually, that isn’t true.  The problem is the owner-technician’s inertia.  Try to take the owner out of the picture and you are accused of planning a mutiny.  Never mind the reality that the owner has already lost control; he talked to a friend who had a buddy who hired a consultant and that consultant ended up buying the company for almost nothing.  Never mind the reality that a company built around the owner is worth almost nothing.

Are you looking at a situation like that?  Are you the sole owner-technician of a small business where it seems that you re-do everything your employees already did?  Do you feel you are the only person qualified to make a sales call?  To build the widget?  To make a collection call?

Perhaps you are in a partnership and hoped that by making your best friend/employee an owner she would work 140 hours a week just like you?  Re-doing everything someone else already did, calling the same customers, shipping extra widgets…

This is where I depart from the E-Myth.  The author makes it sound like you can be down this path and somehow recover.  Sorry, it simply isn’t going to work that way.  Inertia is working against you.

Think about it.  You hired a bookkeeper because you hated doing the books and it ate into the time to make a sales call and build the product.  You still hate doing the books plus you don’t know how.  And if you do the books who will make the sales calls?  And don’t even get you started on sales people:  They make deals that you can’t keep and then they leave and take the customer.  No, it is better if you keep things they way they are and just work harder, right?

No.  It is not better; not for you, not your business, not your employees.  You can make the change but you can’t fight the inertia.  You may, however, be able to start deflecting your path.  The goal is not to slow you down but rather start changing the direction so that you start going in the direction you want.

More on this in my next article.  Have a great day.