Why GAAP matters

Sadly I am not allowed to say too much about today’s meeting as the board was in executive session but the gist of the other accountant’s opinion is that economic reality doesn’t matter only the legal form of a transaction.

Really?

When pressed about how that could possibly be the case since contractors obviously have earned a certain amount of revenue based upon an economic theory, the reply was, “Well you can’t confuse for profit with non-profit.”

Really?

When asked how, when a contract shows the total amount due or, if you elect you can pay a sum each month over XXX number of months and it includes interest at Y%, this someone does not create a sum certain for accounting purposes,  there is not somehow some understanding that the sum certain is a receivable, the replay was, “The contract says it is revenue only upon the payment of the monthly amount.”

Really?

The board naturally is confused.  Rightly so.  Two professionals, two different opinions, one type of transaction.

Except that one professional has a position backed up by research on the application of GAAP and how the Accounting Standards Codifications call for the transactions to be recorded.  The other is an opinion based upon his 30+ years of experience so he doesn’t need to know GAAP.

Honestly, if I were the board I would fire us both.  Me for yelling at a dumbass accountant who thinks that if he appeases his fired client he will continue to reap referrals and the other accountant for being a dumbass and trying to provide accounting 101 lessons.

I was wrong to lose my temper.  At the end of the day the treatment we selected is appropriate and consistent with GAAP.  But there was almost $2,500 of billing listening to a lecture of how debits are on the left and credits are on the right.  I was infuriated not for myself but the fact that these board members have owned and run businesses, sat on boards and really do understand the basics of accounting theory.  They paid $2,500 to listen to a self-proclaimed expert prattle on how form matters over substance.

Each person in the room understands that Enron happened.  That WorldCom cost them and their friends dearly.  When no matter how you cut it, you can’t incur an expense without the expectation that there exists a pool of resources to pay the attendant liability. And one expects their financial statements to reflect the reality of that situation.

GAAP exists for a reason.  GAAP doesn’t reflect – or rather should not reflect – the mere form of a transaction.  GAAP reflects economic reality.  And it does matter.  Because the next time you go to buy a home and you look at the books and it shows zero receivable from the owners and a bank liability of any amount, please understand, you are likely facing a special assessment only no one wants you to know.  And, had those books been properly kept on GAAP, you would have known the problem exists.  You probably still would have bought but at least you won’t be able to say (with a straight face) that you weren’t warned.  Which is the whole point of a financial statement anyways – to help you make better investing decisions.

So, GAAP is GAAP.  If you are bothered by the fact that your accounting is complex, look to the reality of your transaction as it is likely complex.  The further you get from doing work and billing for it, the more complex you make accounting in addressing your transactions.  Don’t blame the accountants… We are simply the messengers.

The Dilemma of the Review Engagement

GAAP can be incredibly complex.  A review engagement under SSARS requires the independent accountant perform analytical tests to determine if GAAP is being complied with.   A review is not an Audit.  It is “substantially less in scope than an audit…” which is a fancy way of saying that the reviewer is not looking deeply into the financial statements.  This means that some complex GAAP issues can be overlooked during a review because the analytic procedure may not discover the problem.

Case in point:

Alpha Condo Association was faced with a dilemma.  The 20 unit complex had substantial leaking through the roof last winter.  Sadly the roof was at its end of life and was going to cost $200,000 to tear-off and replace and also upgrade their elevator and HVAC system.  The association had only $50,000 in their reserve fund.

No, I am not going to rant about the lack of foresight by the board.  My other blog is addressing that issue.  What I am going to discuss is how things can go sideways and it might take years to discover.

Back to the issue at hand.  The board votes to have a special assessment for $10,000 per unit to deal with the problem.  The owners approve the special assessment 13 to 7.  Here is where things go wrong.

The board apparently provided owners two payment options.  Full payment within 30 days or payment over 10 years with interest.  The resolution which passed stated the interest rate charged was going to be equal to the interest rate on any bank loans taken out.

Five owners paid the $10K within 30 days.  The remainder took the payment option and the board borrowed $200,000 from the bank to do the work.

Apparently the board decided that, to make things easier, they would include the interest due from the owners in the initial assessment.  So, instead of their special assessment being $10K, it was $16,000.  Yes, that’s right.  The bank’s interest rate times the ten years for the repayment term of the special assessment.  The actual interest ended up being about 9.6%.

Ignore, for the moment, the fact that this does not calculate out to 6.0% interest, the real problem is that the management company recorded a receivable of $290,000 and special assessment revenue of $290,000.  The special assessment of $200,000 and the interest charge of $90,000.

The financial statements were reviewed by several different independent CPA’s (not us) over the years which reported the financial statements were prepared according to GAAP.

No they weren’t.  The original entry was incorrect by treating the interest as special assessment revenue.

Today’s missive is not about GAAP per se, it is about the inherent risk of a reviewed financial statement.

I am not trying to defend the fact that the CPA’s overlooked the problem.  In hindsight it is obvious that the $90,000 was not “earned” as special assessment but it was rather unearned interest on the special assessment receivable.  Now, almost a decade past the original special assessment we are performing the review and we stumbled across this matter.

Of course, like any good story there is lots of murkiness.  Like the fact that the unit owners voted to pass on having a review in the year of the special assessment as well as the two years after.  It wasn’t until 3 years after the transaction that the CPA was asked to review the financial statements.  And sadly, this issue was overlooked.

Again, this isn’t about GAAP; directly.  This is about the fact that the owners decided against spending money on an assurance service.  That’s right, hiring a CPA to perform an attest function on your financial statements is a means to ensure that what you are being told in those statements is prepared according to the rules everyone agreed to.

Most state condominium laws require at least a review of the association’s financial statements.  The law also typically requires that the financial statements be prepared according to GAAP.  But the law also typically gives boards and/or owners the right to waive compliance with the attest of the financial statements.

The owners agreed to waive the preparation of the financial statements for three straight years.  For three straight years the presumption is everyone was cool with how the accounting was done.  Finally a review is done and, because the reviewing CPA missed the original transaction, they want the CPA’s head on a platter.  Talk about shooting the messenger.

If you, as a non-profit board, as a business owner, as an investor, take a pass on hiring an independent CPA to perform an attest service, don’t blame the CPA when things don’t go right.  And, if you think saving money by having a review instead of a very painful (and valuable but costly) audit performed is a great idea, don’t be surprised when things are not working like you were lead to believe.  After all, the accountants’ report clearly states that a review is substantially less in scope than an audit… buyer beware.

No one likes to make mistakes but it happens.  As professionals we are ok with being held accountable for our work.  But when you elect to take the cheap route and things are wrong, don’t go looking to blame the professionals when it suddenly comes to bite you in the butt.

We haven’t worked out yet how we are going to handle this.  It is a problem to be sure – on several levels.  But the point is, don’t skimp on an audit if you want reasonable assurance that the financial statements are prepared correctly; and don’t skimp on a review if you are not involved in the day-to-day operation of the entity.  Neither service will catch everything that might be wrong but, what doesn’t get told in a financial statement is often worse than what is in there.

Have a great day.