Crisis of the Bookkeepers
The Future of the Accounting Profession
Interview with David Jones
By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.
Also published by United Press International (UPI)
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Written August 2002
Updated June 2005
On May 31, 2005, the US Supreme Court overturned the conviction of accounting firm Arthur Anderson on charges related to its handling of the books of the now defunct energy concern, Enron. It was only the latest scene in a drama which unfolded at the height of the wave of corporate malfeasance in the USA.
David C. Jones is a part-time research fellow at the Center for Urban Development Studies of the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University. He has been associated with the University since 1987 when he retired from the World Bank, where he served as financial adviser for water supply and urban development.
He had joined the World Bank, as a senior financial analyst, in 1970, after working as a technical assistance advisor for the British Government in East Africa. He began his career in British local government. He is a Chartered Public Finance Accountant and a Chartered Certified Accountant (UK). He is the author of "Municipal Accounting for Developing Countries" originally published by the World Bank and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (UK) in 1982.
Q: Accounting scandals seem to form the core of corporate malfeasance in the USA. Is there something wrong with the GAAP - or with American accountants?
A: Accounting is based on some fundamental principles. As I say at the beginning of my textbook, the accountant "records and interprets variations in financial position ... during any period of time, at the end of which he can balance net results (of past operations) against net resources (available for future operations)".
Accountancy includes the designing of financial records, the recording of financial information based on actual financial transactions (i.e., bookkeeping), the production of financial statements from the recorded information, giving advice on financial matters, and interpreting and using financial data to assist in making the best management decisions.
Simple as these principles may sound, they are, in practice, rather complicated to implement, to interpret and to practice. About 80% of the transactions require only about 20% of the effort because they are straightforward and obvious to a book-keeper, once the rules are learned.
But - and it is a big but - the other 20% or so of transactions require 80% of the intellectual effort. These transactions are most likely to have major impacts on the profit and loss account and the balance sheet.
My colleagues and I, all qualified accountants, have heated discussion over something as simple as the definition of a debit or a credit. Debits can be records of either expenses or assets. The former counts against income in the statement of profit and loss. The latter is treated as a continuing resource in a balance sheet. It is sometimes gradually allocated (expensed) against income in subsequent years, sometimes not.
A fundamental problem with the financial reporting of WorldCom, for example, was that huge quantities of expenses were misallocated in the accounts as assets. Thus, by reducing expenditures, profit appeared to be increased. The effect of this on stock values and, thereby, on executive rewards are secondary and tertiary outcomes not caused directly by the accountancy.
Another example concerns interest on loans that may have been raised to finance capital investment, while a large asset is under construction, often for several years.
Some argue that the interest should be accounted for as part of the capital cost until the asset is operational. Others claim that because the interest is an expense, it should be charged against that year's profits. Yet, the current year's income includes none of the income generated by the new asset, so profit is under-stated. And what if a hydro-electric power station starts to operate three of its ten turbines while still under construction? How does one allocate what costs, as expenses or assets, in such cases?
Interestingly, the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) require that "interest during construction" be capitalized, that is included in the cost of the asset. The International Accounting Standards (IAS) prefer expensing but allow capitalization. From an economic viewpoint, both are wrong - or only partially right!
The accountancy profession should get together to establish common practices for comparing companies, limiting the scope for judgment. Accountants used to make the rules in the USA and elsewhere until the business community demanded input from other professionals, to provide a more "balanced" view.
This led to the establishment of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), with non-accountants as members. The GAAP has been tempered by political and business lobbying. Moreover, accounting rules for taxation purposes and applied to companies quoted on stock exchanges are not always consistent with the GAAP.
Accountants who do not follow the rules are disciplined. American accountants are among the best educated and best-trained in the world. Those who wish to be recognized as auditors of significant enterprises must be CPAs. Thus, they must have obtained at least a finance-related bachelor's degree and then have passed a five-part examination that is commonly set, nation-wide, by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). To practice publicly, they must be licensed by the state in which they live or practice. To remain a CPA, each must abide by the standards of conduct and ethics of the AICPA, including a requirement for continuing professional education.
Most other countries have comparable rules. Probably the closest comparisons to the USA are found in the UK and its former colonies.
Q: Can you briefly compare the advantages and disadvantages of the GAAP and the IAS?
A: It is asserted that the GAAP tend to be "rule-based" and the IAS are "principle-based." GAAP, because they are founded on the business environment of the USA are closely aligned to its laws and regulations. The IAS seek to prescribe how credible accounting practices can operate within a country's existing legal structure and prevailing business practices.
Alas, sometimes the IAS and the GAAP are in disagreement. The two rule-making bodies - FASB and IASB - are trying to cooperate to eliminate such differences.
The Inter-American Development Bank, having reviewed the situation in Latin America, concluded that most of the countries in that region - as well as Canada and the EU aspirants - are IAS-orientated. Still, the USA is by far the largest economy in the world, with significant political influence. It also has the world's most important financial markets.
Q: Can accounting cope with derivatives, off-shore entities, stock options - or is there a problem in the very effort to capture dynamics and uncertainties in terms of a static, numerical representation?
A: Most, if not all, of these matters can be handled by proper application of accounting principles and practices. Much has been made of expensing employee stock options, for instance. But an FASB proposal in the early nineties was watered down at the insistence of US company lobbyists and legislators.
How to value stock options and when to recognize them is not clear. A paper on the topic identified sixteen different valuation parameters. But accountants are accustomed to dealing with such practical matters.
Q: Can you describe the state of the art (i.e., recent trends) of municipal finance in the USA, Europe, Latin America (mainly Argentina and Brazil), and in emerging economies (e.g., central and eastern Europe)?
A: There are no standard practices for governmental accounting - whether national, federal, state, or local. The International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) urged accountants to follow various practices. It subsequently settled mainly on accrual accounting standards.
Some countries - the UK, for local government, New Zealand for both central and local government - use full accrual at current value, which is beyond many private sector practices. This is being reviewed in the UK. The central government there is introducing "resource-based" accounting, approximating full accrual at current value.
The US Governmental Accounting Standards Board has recently recommended that US local governments produce dual financial reports, combining "commercially-based" practices with those emanating from the truly unique US "fund accounting" system.
In my book I recognized that fixed assets are being funded less and less entirely by debt, private sector accounting practices increasingly intrude into the public sector, and costs of services must be much more carefully assessed.
Q: Are we likely to witness municipal Enrons and World.com's?
A: We already have! Remember the financial downfall and restructuring of New York City in the seventies. Other state and local governments have had serious defaults in USA and elsewhere. Shortcomings of their accounting, politicians choosing to ignore predictive budgeting, borrowing used to cover operating expenditures - similar to WorldCom. In the case of the New York City debacle, operating expenditures were treated as capital expenditures to balance the operating budget.
More recently, I testified to the US Congress about Washington DC, where the City Council ran up a huge accumulated operating deficit, of c. $700 million. It then sought Congressional approval to cover this deficit by borrowing.
Even more recently, the State of Virginia decided to abolish the property tax on domestic vehicles. This left a huge gap in the following year's current budget. The governor proposed to use a deceptive accounting device and to set up a separate - and, thus not subject to a referendum - "revenue" bond-issuing entity (shades of Enron's "Special Purpose Entities"). The bonds were then to be serviced by expected annual receipts from the negotiated tobacco settlement, at that time not even finalized. This crazy and illegal plan was abandoned.
The fact that both accounting and financial reporting for local governments are very often in slightly modified cash-based formats adds to the confusion. But these formats could be built on. Indeed, in the very tight budgetary situations facing virtually every local government, it is essential that cash management on a day-to-day basis be given high priority.
Still, the system can be misleading. It produces extremely scant information on costs - the use of resources - compared with expenditures (i.e., cash-flows). More seriously, cash accounting allows indiscriminate allocation of funds between capital and recurrent purposes, thus permitting no useful assessment of annual or other periodic financial performance.
A cash-based system cannot engender a credible balance sheet. It produces meaningless and incoherent information on assets and liabilities and the ownership, or trusteeship, of separate (or separable) funds. It is not a sound system of budgetary control. When year-end unpaid invoices are held over, it creates a false impression of operating within approved budgetary limits. Thus, local government units can run serious budgetary deficits that are hidden from public view merely by not paying their bills on time and in full! A cash accounting system will not reveal this.
Still, moving to an accrual system should be done slowly and cautiously. Private sector experience, in former Soviet countries, of changing to accrual accounting was administratively traumatic. Their public sector systems may not easily survive any major tinkering, let alone an - eventually inevitable - full overhaul. Skills, tools, and access to proper professional knowledge are required before this is attempted.
Q: Can you compare municipal and corporate accounting and financing practices as far as governance and control are concerned?
A: In corporate accounting practice, the notional owners and managers are the shareholders. In practice, through the use of proxies and other devices, the real control is normally in the hands of a board of directors. Actual day to day control reverts to the company chairmen, president, chief executive or chief operating officer. The chief financial officer is often - though not necessarily - an accountant and he or she oversees qualified accountants.
The company's accountants must produce the annual and other financial statements. It is not the responsibility of the auditors whose obligation is to report to the shareholders on the credibility and legality of the financial statements. The shareholders may appoint an audit committee to review the audit reports on their behalf. The audit is carried out by Certified Public Accountants with recognized accounting credentials. Both the qualified accountants in the audit firm and those in the corporation are subject to professional discipline of their accounting institutions and of the law.
In local government accounting practice, the public trustees and managers are normally a locally elected council. Often, the detailed control over financial management is in the hands of a finance committee or finance commission, usually comprised only of elected members.
Traditionally, only the elected council may take major financial decisions, such as approving a budget, levying taxes and borrowing. Actual day to day control of a local government may be by an executive mayor, or by an elected or appointed chief executive. There normally is a chief financial officer, often - though not necessarily - an accountant in charge of other qualified accountants.
It is the responsibility of the accountants of the local government to produce the annual and other financial statements. It is not the responsibility of the auditors whose obligation is to report to the local elected council on the credibility and legality of the financial statements. The council may appoint an audit committee to review the audit reports on their behalf, or they may ask the finance committee to do this.
However, it is quite common, in many countries, for local government financial statements to be audited by properly authorized public officials. Auditors should be qualified, independent, experienced, and competent. Audits should be regular and comprehensive. It is unclear whether or not public official auditors always fulfill these conditions.
In the United Kingdom, for example, there is a Local Government Audit Commission which employs qualified accountants either on its own staff or from hired accountancy firms. Thus, it clearly follows high standards.
Q: How did the worldwide trend of devolution affect municipal finance?
A: Outside of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, municipal finance was not significantly affected by devolution, though there has been a tendency for decentralization. Central governments hold the purse-strings and almost all local governments operate under legislation engendered by the national, or - in federal systems - state, governments. Local governments rarely have separate constitutional authority, although there are varying degrees of local autonomy.
In the former Soviet Empire, changes of systems and of attitudes were much more dramatic. Local government units, unlike under the former Soviet system, are not branches of the general government. They are separate corporate bodies, or legal persons. But in Russia, and in other former socialist countries, they have often been granted "de jure" (legal) independence but not full "de facto" (practical) autonomy.
There seems to be an unwillingness to accept that the two systems are intended to operate quite differently. What is good for a central government is not necessarily equally good for a local government unit. For example, the main purpose of local government is to provide public services, with only enough authority to perform them effectively. It is almost always the responsibility of a central or state government to enact and enforce the criminal and civil law. Local by-laws or ordinances are usually concerned only with minor matters and are subject to an enabling legislation. Moreover, they may prove to be "ultra vires" (beyond their powers) and, therefore, unconstitutional, or at least unenforceable.
It may be appropriate, under certain circumstances, for a central government to run budgetary deficits, whether caused by current or capital transactions. In local government units, there is almost always a necessity to distinguish between such transactions. Moreover, in most countries, local government units are required by law to have balanced budgets, without resort to borrowing to cover current deficits.
A corporate body (legal person), whether a private or a public sector entity, has a separate legal identity from the central government and from the members, shareholders, or electorate who own and manage it. It has its own corporate name. Typically, its formal decisions are by resolution of its managing body (board or council). Written documents are authenticated by its common seal. It may contract, sue and be sued in its own name. Indeed, unless specifically prevented by law, it may even sue the central government! It may also have legal relationships with its own individual members or with its staff. It is often said to have perpetual succession, meaning that it lives on, even though the individual members may die, resign or otherwise cease their membership.
While a corporation owes its existence to legislation, a local government unit is established, typically, under something like a "Local Government Organic Law". Corporate status differs fundamentally from that of (say) government departments in a system of de-concentration. Permanent closure or abolition of a municipal council, or indeed any change in its powers and duties, would almost always require formal legal action, typically national parliamentary legislation.
A local government unit makes its own policy decisions, some of which, especially the financial ones, often require approval by a central government authority. Still, the central government rarely runs, or manages, a local government unit on a daily basis. The relationship is at arms length and not hands on. A local government unit usually is empowered to own land and real estate. Sometimes, public assets - such as with roads or drainage systems - are deemed to be "vested in" the local authority because they cannot be owned in the same way as buildings are.
Q: Local authorities issue bonds, partake in joint ventures, lend to SME's - in short, encroach on turf previously exclusively occupied by banks, the capital markets, and business. Is this a good or a bad thing?
A: Local governments are established to provide services and perform activities required or allowed by law! Normally, they won't seek or be permitted to engage in commercial activities, best left to the private sector. However, there have always been natural monopolies (such as water supply), coping with negative economic externalities (such as sewerage and solid waste management), the provision of whole or partial public goods (such as street lighting, or roads) and merit goods (such as education, health, and welfare), and services that the community, for economic or social reasons, seeks to subsidize (such as urban transport). Left to the private marketplace, these services would be absent, or under-supplied, or over-charged for.
Such services are wholly or partially financed by local taxation, either imposed by local governments, or by central (or state) taxation, through a grant or revenue-sharing system. What has changed in recent years is that local governments have been encouraged and empowered to outsource these services to the private sector, or to "public-private" partnerships.
Charges for services, and revenues from taxation cover current operating expenditures with a small operating surplus used to partly fund capital expenditure or to service long, or medium term debt, such as bond issues secured against future revenues. Commercial banks, because of their tendency to lend only for relatively short periods of time, usually have a relatively minor role in such funding, except perhaps as fiscal agents or bond issue managers.
Other funding is obtained via direct - and dependence-forming - capital grants from the central or state government. Alternatively, the central government can establish a quasi-autonomous local government loans authority, which it may wholly or partially fund. The authority may also seek to raise additional funds from commercial sources and make loans on reasonable terms to the local governments.
Third, the central government may lend directly to local governments, or guarantee their borrowing. Finally, local governments are left to their own devices to raise loans as and when they can, on whatever terms are available. This usually leaves them in a precarious position, because the market for this kind of long and medium term credit is thin and costly.
Commercial banks make short term loans to local governments to cover temporary shortages of working capital. If not properly controlled, such short-term loans are rolled over and accumulate unsustainably. That is what happed in New York City, in the seventies.
Q: In the age of the Internet and the car, isn't the added layer of municipal bureaucracy superfluous or even counterproductive? Can't the center - at least in smallish countries - administer things at least as well?
A: I am quite sure that they can. There are many glaring examples of mismatches of sizes, shapes and responsibilities of local government units. For example, New York, Moscow and Bombay are each single local government units. Yet, they each have much bigger populations than many countries, such as New Zealand, the republics of former Yugoslavia, and the Baltic states.
On the other hand, the Greater Washington Metropolitan Area comprises a federal district, four counties and several small cities. The local government systems are under the jurisdictions of two states and the federal government. Each of the two states has a completely different traditions and systems of local governance, emanating from pre-independence times. Accordingly, the local government systems north and east of the Potomac River (which flows through the Washington area) are substantially different from those to the south and west. Finally, the Boston area, a cradle of U.S. democracy, is governed by a conglomerate of over 40 local government jurisdictions. Even its most famous college, Harvard, is in Cambridge and not in Boston itself. Many of the jurisdictions are so small (Boston is not very big by U.S. standards) that common services are run by agencies of the State of Massachusetts.
The problem of centralizing financial records would, indeed, be relatively simple to solve. If credit card companies can maintain linkages world-wide, there is no practical reason why local government accounts for (say) a city in Macedonia could not be kept in China. The issue here is quite different. It revolves around democracy, tradition, living in community, service delivery at a local level, civil society, and the common wealth. It really has very little to do with accountancy, which is just one tool of management, albeit an important one.
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