Accounting Standards

One of the big issues we face, as auditors, is an entity following an accounting standard for its financial statements.  Which begs the question, what is an accounting standard?

The best way to look at it is that an accounting standard is the expectation of how transactions should be recorded and disclosed in financial statements.   For generally accepted accounting principles, also called GAAP, this way of recording and reporting transactions is presented in the Accounting Standards Codification, or ASC’s.

Why should anyone care?  That is the question we are struggling with this week.  It seems that there are some, even in professional accounting, who are unsure why GAAP should be followed.  I have shared with you some of our more interesting conversation with clients and their management but we have similar discussions within the profession.

The simplest answer is, eliminating confusion.

GAAP, with all its faults, is just what it says it is, generally accepted.  This doesn’t mean universally accepted but it does mean that most of us agree that transactions should be recorded and reported a particular way.  By agreeing, up front, on how transactions should be completed, we get rid of the guesswork and the uncertainty of everyone deciding on their own.

Yes, this is all wonderfully theoretical but the vast majority of small businesses, non-profits and HOA’s don’t care about GAAP, is the argument we hear.  No doubt.  But the people who put their money into it should.

On a simple level, you are approach by a friend, a contractor lets say.  He wants you to be a guarantor on a project.  It seems he can’t get bonding.  You agree but only if you look at his financial statements so you know what you might be getting into.

He hands you a single piece of paper.  On it it says,

Cash        $500,000
A/R       $2,500,000
Profits                 $3,000,000

Are you ready to sign on the dotted line to guarantee this upcoming project?  If so, please write me immediately because I have an investment idea for you!

Of course you are not going to accept it.  Not because you question the numbers, per se, but because you don’t understand how they came into being.  In short, this is confusing isn’t it?

What would you like to know?  How about how he decides to recognize his income?  Perhaps how he elects to record expenses?  Does he have any debts that are not on the books?

You are interested in his accounting principles.  Now, if you happen to know how most (not all) contractors do accounting, you could ask something like,

Other contractors I know record revenues based on how much of the work is completed, is that how you record it?  I have read several other financial statements from contractors and they all have some amount of construction costs, how do you record costs?

If everyone could pick and choose the policy they want to follow we don’t have standards.  You would not have an ability to compare one company against another in the exact same industry – you would not even be able to follow a single company from year-to-year.  Accounting standards enable you to do this.

Look, we know GAAP can be complex.  But in all fairness, your entity is complex.  If you are a retailer of candy bars and you sell for cash only, you have very simple accounting.  If you take money today for work that will be done over the next three years, you created complexity.  And if you do work today and allow people to pay you over the next three years but only in relationship to how effective your work is, you created a nightmare.

As a reader, you should want to know how an entity records and reports transactions.  You should want to feel comfortable that a lot of other similar entities are doing the same thing.  In short, you want to feel good that the financial statements you are looking at are, in fact, generally accepted.

If you don’t like GAAP, then don’t play with other people’s money.   Don’t ask lenders, don’t ask investors, don’t ask me.  If you are the only person who relies upon how you do the accounting do it any damn way you please.  I mean, lets be honest, you won’t even look at a financial statement.  You will log into your bank to see how much cash you have and make all your decisions based on that.

But if you expect others to put their faith in you, then embrace GAAP.  Ensure you prepare financial statements for them to read that comply with the standards the accounting profession has provided.  The standards don’t exist to make your life miserable, they exist to help you get the funding you need.  Overwhelm your reader with good, actionable information and they will return the love.  They may not give you money, but they will likely do what they can to help you succeed.

Because honesty and integrity are still rewarded in this world, even if it often doesn’t seem like it.

Have a great weekend.  And if you are looking for an auditor or CPA firm to review your financial statements, or just help you make sure your financial statements are useful to your readers, feel free to get more information and contact us through our website.  We are here to help you rely upon your management, even if that is you.


Management’s Representation

We are often asked, “Why do I have to sign this letter?”  The letter being referred to is the management representation letter.  As to the why, because you as management, the owner, the board, are making specific assertions that we, the independent accountant’s are relying upon.

An important part of management’s representation is the concept of materiality.  The representation letter typically includes this paragraph, “Certain representations in this letter are described as being limited to matters that are material. Items are considered material, regardless of size, if they involve an omission or misstatement of accounting
information that, in the light of surrounding circumstances, makes it probable that the judgment of a reasonable person relying on the information would be changed or influenced by the omission or misstatement.”

In this section you are agreeing to the concept that the dollar value alone is not necessarily indicative of materiality.  I will use a real-world example (one we are currently facing) to explain:  Way back in November 2013, an association approved a special assessment.  Interest was to start December 1, 2013 if the full amount of the special assessment wasn’t paid by November 30.  Unpaid interest earned was about $3,500.  The manager did not accrue the interest for those who hadn’t paid by December 31.    Was it material?  Dollar-wise probably not.  But had it been known that over 30% of owners had not paid their first payment – which would have been obvious had the accrued interest been included – it is quite probably that a reasonable person’s judgement may have been changed.

So what are some of the specific representations you are making?  Regarding the financial statements, you represent:

  • You understand that you are responsible for the preparation and fair presentation of the financial statements.  This is true even if you entrust the preparation of the financial statement to the outside accountant.
  • You acknowledge your responsibility to design, implement and maintain an internal control system and you have fulfilled this responsibility.  This is a big issue; go back to the example above, obviously the control system to ensure that all relevant information was provided in the financial statement was not working properly.
  • You acknowledge your responsibility to design, implement and maintain an internal control system to prevent and detect fraud.  Fraud, by the way, is not just about people stealing it is also about ensuring the financial statements are not intentionally misleading.
  • Related party relationships and transactions have been accounted for and are disclosed.  This could be as simple as renting the building from an LLC owned by the majority shareholder or as complex as contracting with a company where the controller is a silent partner.  You are stating that these types of transactions have been fully documented and are properly disclosed to a reader of the financial statements.
  • Any important events that happened after the balance sheet date are accounted for and/or disclosed.  This means, if you decide to pay a large bonus to key employees after the year-end, at a minimum it needs to be fully disclosed and more likely properly accrued since the bonus no doubt stems from the profit of the year.

These are by no means all the things you are representing regarding the financial statements.  But you get the idea; you have the primary responsibility for all the financial information and making sure it gets in the financial statement.  You can and should bring it up to your accountant (or whoever is preparing the financial statement) if you have the slightest concern that it is something that should be included.

When is that you ask?  The fact it is on your mind means it should probably be disclosed.  The old saying, “When in doubt, let it out.” definitely applies to your financial statements.  Don’t try to suppress bad news or fluff up the good.  You, as management and the board (if it exists) have an obligation to ensure the truth is provided so that the reader can make an informed decision.

If you need help with preparing financial statements or designing an effective internal control system, feel free to contact us through our website.  We have worked with many large and small businesses, non-profits, and associations as auditor and also consultants.  We are here to be of service to you.

Cash Flow and Investors

I am occasionally asked to provide guidance to developers on how best to structure cash flows and how to present the information so that their investors can see what is happening.  Unfortunately, GAAP is somewhat weak in this area so we fall back on good old fashioned sources and uses statements.

Of course, these become a little more challenging when the project has multiple classes of ownership, each with their own return on investment (ROI) expectation.  And they become really hard when the cash flows are no where near expectations.

Naturally, developers don’t turn to the accountant when things are going well – invariably we are asked to weigh in when things are not working as expected.  In the most recent case, the investors are bothered by cash being paid to the developer and they think it should be paid to them.  This is a pretty common theme.

Changing the facts and circumstances a little, lets say you developed a commercial building.  To keep it somewhat simple there are 3 investors and a lender, A, B Developer and Bank.

  • A invested $5,000,000 with a guaranteed 10% return and is supposed to receive the first $500,000 in cash annually after debt service
  • B invested 5,000,000 with a guaranteed 15% return and is scheduled to receive their payment after a $100,000 developer payment to Developer
  • Developer receives their $100,000 payment and then can receive any residual cash
  • The developer predicted about $1.5 Million in annual cash flow after debt service

Cash flow after debt service is $900,000.   Obviously this is somewhat disappointing, especially for B.  According to the accounting,

  • A receives their $500,000
  • Developer receives their $300,000
  • B only receives $250,000 out of their $750,000

B thinks that developer is taking more money than allowed for.  From B’s perspective, Developer received $300K when they should have only received $100K and the other $200,000 belongs to B.

In the course of trying to explain this, we had to dig a little deeper.  We identified that Developer also invoiced for maintenance – $200,000.  The bookkeeper inadvertently recorded it to the wrong account but the damage is done.  B is threatening to sue for failure to perform.

This is where a good sources and uses statement comes in handy.  We were able to lay out how funds came in and how funds went out.  We started from the accrual basis  and created columns to eliminate the various transactions to get to the pure cash in and out.

By identifying how first funds, and then cash, were handled, B was able to understand that the transaction was first recorded incorrectly and second was not a cash transaction.  We actually pointed out that the invoicing for the maintenance was agreed to by the members and could have been paid out as an ordinary business expense but Developer felt it best to try and satisfy B first to the extent possible.  The remaining cash was actually being held onto as a reserve for some defects that were noticed

As powerful as full GAAP statements can be, sometimes it is the simplest statements, like a sources and uses that can make people understand what is actually going on.  Yes, had B read the full financial statement they might have seen what was going on, and yes B could have handled it better than assuming improper behavior on the part of Developer, but the truth is, when you think you are not received your due one tends to see only things from your own perspective.

So the next time you are facing a question over how money and value are coming and going from your activity try a sources and uses statement.  I think you will be surprised how well it might help the situation.

Have a great day.  If you have any questions about this topic or anything else related to business or management, feel free to contact us through our website.  We are here to be of service to you.

Auditing investments

It is always refreshing to see associations which take responsibility for their future replacements by trying to find investments which can actually grow beyond the rate of inflation.  A solid investment plan can help them ease the burden of reserve assessments by using collected funds to grow at an accelerated, but reasonably safe, rate of return.

Auditing these investments is challenging though.

Conceptually, auditing investments is not any harder than auditing cash.  Except that investments carry certain additional disclosure requirements and the treasurer typically has little to no exposure on how to record the transactions let alone report them to be audited.  Which means that our work as the auditor grows significantly.

You see, Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) requires that the investments be reported as either trading, available for sale or held to maturity.  How many investment advisors even understand what can be assigned to these categories?  And our role, as auditor, is to make sure that the investments are properly categorized and that the related gains, losses, and earnings is properly reported in the statement of activity; i.e. the profit and loss statement.  To ensure that they are properly recorded in the period, the accounting department has to know the difference between realized and recognized gains and losses, temporary impairment, other than temporary impairment and put those in the right reporting areas.

Which of course leads to another big accounting issue, accumulated other comprehensive income.  This is the series of holding accounts for the unrealized gains.  You have to know how to close out the transaction to recognize the ultimate sale of the investment.

Did I mention that you have to also track bond premiums and discounts and do some accounting work to get the amortization right?  Again, all this has to be tracked correctly to report in accordance with GAAP.

The rub is that treasurers and boards don’t really understand the complexity of this and often don’t really care.  Their issue is the investment and the return, not its reporting.  Which brings us to our dilemma.

Trying to account for, and then audit, investments can add a substantial cost to the engagement.  It is a cost that probably won’t be valuable to the board and owners in the association.  So, do we allow for a GAAP departure on the investments and simply say they are recorded at cost and have associations report gains and losses at the time of sale?

It is a difficult position.  On the one hand we want the statements to fairly represent the financial activity of the association but on the other hand we don’t want to drive up the cost of the engagement to the point where they find another auditor.  One who perhaps will take huge shortcuts on the reporting and auditing side.  Yes, we see that far too often as well.

So, putting your reserve fund to work by investing it strategically and at reasonable risk is a fair approach to managing the money.  But there are other things to consider besides the actual investing and you, as a board, need to be aware of these issues and take a position on how to report this to the owners in your association financial statement.

Have a great day and an awesome weekend.  And, if you are looking for an experienced audit team to help you maintain effective controls over your association’s finances, feel free to contact us anytime.  We look forward to the opportunity to be of service to you.