If everyone involved in the process of accounting followed their own system, or no system at all, there’s be no way to truly tell whether a company was profitable or not. Most companies follow what are called generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP, and there are huge tomes in libraries and bookstores devoted to just this one topic. Unless a company states otherwise, anyone reading a financial statement can make the assumption that company has used GAAP.
If GAAP are not the principles used for preparing financial statements, then a business needs to make clear which other form of accounting they’re used and are bound to avoid using titles in its financial statements that could mislead the person examining it.
GAAP are the gold standard for preparing financial statement. Not disclosing that it has used principles other than GAAP makes a company legally liable for any misleading or misunderstood data. These principles have been fine-tuned over decades and have effectively governed accounting methods and the financial reporting systems of businesses. Different principles have been established for different types of business entities, such for-profit and not-for-profit companies, governments and other enterprises.
GAAP are not cut and dried, however. They’re guidelines and as such are often open to interpretation. Estimates have to be made at times, and they require good faith efforts towards accuracy. You’ve surely heard the phrase « creative accounting » and this is when a company pushes the envelope a little (or a lot) to make their business look more profitable than it might actually be. This is also called massaging the numbers. This can get out of control and quickly turn into accounting fraud, which is also called cooking the books. The results of these practices can be devastating and ruin hundreds and thousands of lives, as in the cases of Enron, Rite Aid and others.
Financial managers can do certain things to increase or decrease net income that’s recorded in the year. This is called profit smoothing, income smoothing or just plain old window dressing. This isn’t the same as fraud, or cooking the books.
Most profit smoothing involves pushing some amount of revenue and/or expenses into other years than they would normally be recorded. A common technique for profit smoothing is to delay normal maintenance and repairs. This is referred to as deferred maintenance. Many routine and recurring maintenance costs required for autos, trucks, machines, equipment and buildings can be delayed, or deferred until later.
A business that spends a significant amount of money for employee training and development may delay these programs until the next year so the expense in the current year is lower.
A company can cut back on its current year’s outlays for market research and product development.
A business can ease up on its rules regarding when slow-paying customers are written off to expense as bad debts or uncollectible accounts receivable. The business can put off recording some of its bad debts expense until the next reporting year.
A fixed asset that is not being actively used may have very little current or future value to a business. Instead of writing off the un-depreciated cost of the impaired asset as a loss in the current year, the business might delay the write-off until the next year.
You can see how manipulating the timing of certain expenses can make an impact on net income. This isn’t illegal although companies can go too far in massaging the numbers so that its financial statements are misleading. For the most part though, profit smoothing isn’t much more than robbing Peter to pay Paul. Accountants refer to these as compensatory effects. The effects next year offset and cancel out the effects in the current year. Less expense this year is balanced by more expense the next year.
Financial statements are the backbone of a complete financial report. In fact, a financial report is not complete if the three primary financial statements are not included. but a financial report is much more than just those statements. A financial report requires disclosures. This term refers to additional information provided in a financial report. Therefore, any comprehensive and ethical financial report must include not only the primary financial statements, but disclosures as well.
The chief executive of a business (usually the CEO in a publicly held corporation) has the primary responsibility to make sure that the financial statements have been prepared according to generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) and the financial report provides adequate disclosures. He or she works with the chief financial officer or controller of the business to make sure that the financial report meets the standard of adequate disclosures.
Some common methods of disclosures include:
–Footnotes that provide information about the basic figures. Nearly all financial statements require footnotes to provide additional information for several of the account balances in the financial statements.
–Supplementary financial schedules and tables that provide more details than can be included in the body of the financial statements.
–Other information may be required if the business is a public corporation subject to federal regulations regarding financial reporting to its stockholders. Other information is voluntary and not strictly required legally or according to GAAP.
Some disclosures are required by various governing boards and agencies. These include:
–The financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) has designated many standards. Its dictate regarding disclosure of the effects of stock options is one such standard.
–The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) mandates disclosure of a broad range of information for publicly held companies.
–International businesses have to abide by disclosure standards adopted by the International Accounting Standards Board.
When a corporation deliberately conceals or skews information to appear healthy and successful to its shareholders, it has committed corporate or shareholder fraud. Corporate fraud may involve a few individuals or many, depending on the extent to which employees are informed of their company’s financial practices. Directors of corporations may fudge financial records or disguise inappropriate spending. Fraud committed by corporations can be devastating, not only for outside investors who have made share purchases based on false information, but for employees who, through 401ks, have invested their retirement savings in company stock.
Some recent corporate accounting scandals have consumed the news media and ruined hundreds of thousands of lives of the employees who had their retirement invested in the companies that defrauded them and other investors. The nuts and bolts of some of these accounting scandals are as follows:
WorldCom admitted to adjusting accounting records to cover its operation costs and present a successful front to shareholders. Nine billion dollars in discrepancies were discovered before the telecom corporation went bankrupt in July of 2002. One of the hidden expenses was $408 million given to Bernard Ebbers (WorldCom’s CEO) in undisclosed personal loans.
At Tyco, shareholders were not informed of the $170 million in loans that were taken by Tyco’s CEO, CFO, and chief legal officer. The loans, many of which were taken interest free and later written off as benefits, were not approved by Tyco’s compensation committee. Kozlowski (former CEO), Swartz (former CFO), and Belnick (former chief legal officer) face continuing investigations by the SEC and the Tyco Corporation, which is now operating under Edward Breen and a new board of directors.
At Enron, investigations against uncovered multiple acts of fraudulent behavior. Enron used illegal loans and partnerships with other companies to cover its multi-billion dollar debt. It presented erroneous accounting records to investors, and Arthur Anderson, its accounting firm, began shredding incriminating documentation weeks before the SEC could begin investigations. Money laundering, wire fraud, mail fraud, and securities fraud are just some of the indictments directors of Enron have faced and will continue to face as the investigation continues.
Everyone knows at least a little about the Enron story and the devastation it created in the lives of is employees. It’s a story that belongs in any discussion of ethical accounting processes and what happens when accounting standards and ethics are discarded for personal greed.
Enron began in 1985 selling natural gas to gas companies and businesses. In 1996, energy markets were changed so that the price of energy could now be decided by competition among energy companies instead of being fixed by government regulations. With this change, Enron began to function more as a middleman than a traditional energy supplier, trading in energy contracts instead of buying and selling natural gas. Enron’s rapid growth created excitement among investors and drove the stock price up. As Enron grew, it expanded into other industries such as Internet services, and its financial contracts became more complicated.
In order to keep growing at this rate, Enron began to borrow money to invest in new projects. However, because this debt would make their earnings look less impressive, Enron began to create partnerships that would allow it to keep debt off of its books. One partnership created by Enron, Chewco Investments (named after the Star Wars character Chewbacca) allowed Enron to keep $600 million in debt off of the books it showed to the government and to people who own Enron stock. When this debt did not show up in Enron’s reports, it made Enron seem much more successful than it actually was. In December 2000, Enron claimed to have tripled its profits in two years.
In August 2001, Enron vice president Sherron Watkins sent an anonymous letter to the CEO of Enron, Kenneth Lay, describing accounting methods that she felt could lead Enron to « implode in a wave of accounting scandals. » Also in August, CEO Kenneth Lay sent e-mails to his employees saying that he expected Enron stock prices to go up. Meanwhile, he sold off his own stock in Enron.
On October 22nd, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced that Enron was under investigation. On November 8th, Enron said that it has overstated earnings for the past four years by $586 million and that it owed over $6 billion in debt by next year.
With these announcements, Enron’s stock price took a dive. This drop triggered certain agreements with investors that made it necessary for Enron to repay their money immediately. When Enron could not come up with the cash to repay its creditors, it declared for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 is a United States federal law passed in response to the recent major corporate and accounting scandals including those at Enron, Tyco International, and WorldCom (now MCI). These scandals resulted in a decline of public trust in accounting and reporting practices. Named after sponsors Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Representative Michael G. Oxley (R-Oh.), the Act was approved by the House by a vote of 423-3 and by the Senate 99-0. The legislation is wide-ranging and establishes new or enhanced standards for all U.S. public company Boards, Management, and public accounting firms. The first and most important part of the Act establishes a new quasi-public agency, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, which is charged with overseeing and disciplining accounting firms in their roles as auditors of public companies. Some of the major provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s include:
–Certification of financial reports by chief executive officers and chief financial officers
–Auditor independence, including outright bans on certain types of work for audit clients and pre-certification by the company’s Audit Committee of all other non-audit work
–A requirement that companies listed on stock exchanges have fully independent audit committees that oversee the relationship between the company and its auditor
–Significantly longer maximum jail sentences and larger fines for corporate executives who knowingly and willfully misstate financial statements, although maximum sentences are largely irrelevant because judges generally follow the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in setting actual sentences
–Employee protections allowing those corporate fraud whistleblowers who file complaints with OSHA within 90 days, to win reinstatement, back pay and benefits, compensatory damages, abatement orders, and reasonable attorney fees and costs.
Forensic accounting financial investigative specialists work with financial information for the purpose of conveying complicated issues in a manner that others can easily understand. While some forensic accountants and forensic accounting specialists are engaged in the public practice of forensic examination, others work in private industry for such entities as banks and insurance companies or governmental entities such as sheriff and police departments, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
The occupational fraud committed by employees usually involves the theft of assets. Embezzlement has been the most often committed fraud for the last 30 years. Employees may be involved in kickback schemes, identity theft, or conversion of corporate assets for personal use. The forensic accountant couples observation of the suspected employees with physical examination of assets, invigilation, inspection of documents, and interviews of those involved. Experience on these types of engagements enables the forensic accountant to offer suggestions as to internal controls that owners could implement to reduce the likelihood of fraud.
At times, the forensic accountant may be hired by attorneys to investigate the financial trail of persons suspected of engaging in criminal activity. Information provided by the forensic accountant may be the most effective way of obtaining convictions. The forensic accountant may also be engaged by bankruptcy court when submitted financial information is suspect or if employees (including managers) are suspected of taking assets.
Opportunities for qualified forensic accounting professionals abound in private companies. CEOs must now certify that their financial statements are faithful representations of the financial position and results of operations of their companies and rely more heavily on internal controls to detect any misstatement that would otherwise be contained in these financials.
In addition to these activities, forensic accountants may be asked to determine the amount of the loss sustained by victims, testify in court as an expert witness and assist in the preparation of visual aids and written summaries for use in court.
Forensic accounting is the practice of utilizing accounting, auditing, and investigative skills to assist in legal matters. It encompasses 2 main areas – litigation support, investigation, and dispute resolution. Litigation support represents the factual presentation of economic issues related to existing or pending litigation. In this capacity, the forensic accounting professional quantifies damages sustained by parties involved in legal disputes and can assist in resolving disputes, even before they reach the courtroom. If a dispute reaches the courtroom, the forensic accountant may testify as an expert witness.
Investigation is the act of determining whether criminal matters such as employee theft, securities fraud (including falsification of financial statements), identity theft, and insurance fraud have occurred. As part of the forensic accountant’s work, he or she may recommend actions that can be taken to minimize future risk of loss. Investigation may also occur in civil matters. For example, the forensic accountant may search for hidden assets in divorce cases.
Forensic accounting involves looking beyond the numbers and grasping the substance of situations. It’s more than accounting…more than detective work…it’s a combination that will be in demand for as long as human nature exists. Who wouldn’t want a career that offers such stability, excitement, and financial rewards?
In short, forensic accounting requires the most important quality a person can possess: the ability to think. Far from being an ability that is specific to success in any particular field, developing the ability to think enhances a person’s chances of success in life, thus increasing a person’s worth in today’s society. Why not consider becoming a forensic accountant on the Forensic Accounting Masters Degree link on the left-hand navigation bar.
Accountants and auditors help to ensure that the Nation’s firms are run efficiently, its public records kept accurately, and its taxes paid properly and on time. They perform these vital functions by offering an increasingly wide array of business and accounting services, including public, management, and government accounting, as well as internal auditing, to their clients. Beyond carrying out the fundamental tasks of the occupation-preparing, analyzing, and verifying financial documents in order to provide information to clients-many accountants now are required to possess a wide range of knowledge and skills. Accountants and auditors are broadening the services they offer to include budget analysis, financial and investment planning, information technology consulting, and limited legal services.
Specific job duties vary widely among the four major fields of accounting: public, management, and government accounting and internal auditing.
Internal auditors verify the accuracy of their organization’s internal records and check for mismanagement, waste, or fraud. Internal auditing is an increasingly important area of accounting and auditing. Internal auditors examine and evaluate their firms’ financial and information systems, management procedures, and internal controls to ensure that records are accurate and controls are adequate to protect against fraud and waste. They also review company operations, evaluating their efficiency, effectiveness, and compliance with corporate policies and procedures, laws, and government regulations. There are many types of highly specialized auditors, such as electronic data-processing, environmental, engineering, legal, insurance premium, bank, and health care auditors. As computer systems make information timelier, internal auditors help managers to base their decisions on actual data, rather than personal observation. Internal auditors also may recommend controls for their organization’s computer system, to ensure the reliability of the system and the integrity of the data.
Government accountants and auditors work in the public sector, maintaining and examining the records of government agencies and auditing private businesses and individuals whose activities are subject to government regulations or taxation. Accountants employed by Federal, State, and local governments guarantee that revenues are received and expenditures are made in accordance with laws and regulations. Those employed by the Federal Government may work as Internal Revenue Service agents or in financial management, financial institution examination, or budget analysis and administration.
If you don’t keep track of how much money you’re making, you have no idea whether your business is successful or not. You can’t tell how well your marketing is working. And I don’t just mean you should know the amount of your total sales or gross revenue. You need to know what your net profit is. If you don’t, there’s no way you can know how to increase it.
If you want your business to be successful, you need to make a financial plan and check it against the facts on a monthly basis, then take immediate action to correct any problems. Here are the steps you should take:
* Create a financial plan for your business. Estimate how much revenue you expect to bring in each month, and project what your expenses will be.
* Remember that lost profits can’t be recovered. When entrepreneurs compare their projections to reality and find earnings too low or expenses too high, they often conclude, « I’ll make it up later. » The problem is that you really can’t make it up later: every month profits are too low is a month that is gone forever.
* Make adjustments right away. If revenues are lower than expected, increase efforts in sales and marketing or look for ways to increase your rates. If overhead costs are too high, find ways to cut back. There are other businesses like yours around. What is their secret for operating profitably?
* Think before you spend. When considering any new business expense, including marketing and sales activities, evaluate the increased earnings you expect to bring in against its cost before you proceed to make a purchase.
* Evaluate the success of your business based on profit, not revenue. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of dollars you are bringing in each month if your expenses are almost as high, or higher. Many high-revenue businesses have gone under for this very reason — don’t be one of them.