“Imprecise accounting” sounds like an oxymoron. But the reality is that accounting is anything but precise. Financial accounting strives to answer two basic questions: how did the business do last year, and what did the business own and owe at the end of the year? The answers to these questions are summarized in two basic statements, the income statement and the balance sheet.
If you have even a passing knowledge of business and economics, answering these questions might not seem that difficult. In fact, determining a firm’s economic performance and condition often is very difficult. Unfortunately, financial statements rarely are able to give completely definitive and precise answers to what seem to be simple economic questions. Why would this be so?
Accounting’s imprecision derive primarily from three factors. First, it is difficult to pin down exact criteria for measuring economic performance and economic condition. Second, accounting uses money as its fundamental measurement unit, and money’s unit value is not stable over time. Third, accounting rule makers have to allow for the fact that business managers often are motivated to distort economic reality rather than reflect it accurately.
In terms of economic performance, our simplest criterion for doing well surely involves looking at cash flows. A business does well if it brings in more cash than it spends and vice versa. But for all but the very simplest of businesses such a measurement approach can be very problematic. Negative cash flow is not necessarily equivalent to poor economic performance and vice versa. Because of these problems, accountants have had to develop a more abstract concept of economic profitability, which creates its own problems.
Accounting encounters even more difficulty in trying to pin down a firm’s economic condition. To determine economic condition we want to find out about a firm’s assets and their values. But there is more than one standard of value. Should accountants use current market values for assets owned or the original cost incurred to acquire them? Rarely are these values the same and there are advantages and disadvantages to both standards.
There also is legitimate controversy about what should be counted as assets on the balance sheet. For example, should the value of personnel or intangible assets, such as patents, trademarks and goodwill, be measured and included? If so, how do we measure their value?
In accounting the unit of measurement is money. Money is a medium of exchange that has value only to the extent that it can be traded for goods and services. But, money is not a stable unit of measurement, because its exchange value varies with time. What one dollar buys today in goods and services is almost never the same as what that same dollar purchased last year or will purchase two years from now.
The practical ramifications of this instability of money as a measuring unit are pervasive. If a company had net income last year of $100,000, was its economic performance the same as it was five years ago when its income statement also showed a $100,000 net income? Decidedly not, if the purchasing power of the dollar changed significantly in the intervening five years.
Questions about economic condition are also affected by the instability of money as a measurement unit. For example, consider two companies each with $800,000 of assets and $500,000 of liabilities. In the case of one company, all its debt must be repaid within one year, while the other company’s debt does not have to be repaid for ten years. Are the economic conditions of the companies the same? Again, decidedly not, because the purchasing power of the dollar will change over the next ten years.
Accounting rule makers have struggled with the questions of how and when these changes in the value of money should be reflected.
Measurement error is unavoidable. But it would be nice if we could assume that almost everybody involved in the accounting measurement process was highly motivated to avoid errors. Sadly, this is not the case, because business managers often wish to avoid accurate measurements if such accuracy would lead to significant damage to their finances. Facing economic ruin, managers will be strongly tempted to avoid fair and accurate measurements. Managers will seek to “cook the books”.
There are two important ramifications for accounting stemming from this motivational bias. First, in order for financial reports to have any credibility at all, they have to be verified by independent auditors. This is an expensive and often imperfect process. Second, in formulating accounting rules, the rule makers have to carefully consider how any proposed measurement procedures might be subverted by managers intent on providing a skewed view of economic performance or condition. The practical consequence is that the accounting rules that might be most logical and simple are often not adopted because these rules also tend to be the easiest ones for managers to distort.