Conceptual Framework Is an objective economic measure possible


A conceptual framework cannot provide a completely objective means of measuring economic reality since such a reality does not exist independent of accounting practices

"Anticipate no profit, but anticipate all losses" - (Bliss 1924)

Accounting has always been quite conservative. It is evident in the acceptance of Historical Cost Accounting (HCA) as the accepted measurement method for the better part of the last 70 years (Godfrey et. al 2006). Fair-value accounting was later adopted and it is the accepted method of measurement for Conceptual Frameworks (CFs). The changes to the measurement methods over the years have provoked academics to believe that independent of accounting practices economic reality does not really exist.

Over the past few years there have been debates between academics and professional bodies regarding whether the Financial Accounting Standard Board's (FASB) CF can provide completely objective means of measuring reality (Lee 2006a, 2006b, Macintosh (2006), Williams (2006) and Mattessich 2009) [1] . In fact their criticisms were levelled at CFs requirement that financial reports provide users with information that faithfully represents economic reality and that is free from bias.

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In accounting practices "measurement" still remains a topic of debate (Hines, 1989; Mattessich, 1995; Moore 2009). One of the major advantages for HCA is the claims it is objective with some necessary subjective decisions that need to be made. HCA main criticism was that asset's value would be periodically depreciated and the depreciation method was sometimes arbitrary (Godfrey et. al). There are a lot of things that are based on an individual's judgement. Organizations are not in consensus with many simple accounting concepts. For example, revenue which is relatively basic can be 'recognised' at different points. It could be recognised when the goods physically leave the organization, when the customers are invoiced for the sale of a particular goods/service or when money is received (Hines, 1988, p. 253).

Watts (2003) in a two-part series on conservatism in accounting says that the net asset values are persistently understated. He attributes this to the asymmetric treatment of gains and losses and Watts called this the "differential verification" required for recognition of profits versus losses (Watts 2003). Hines (1988) reckons "in communicating reality, we construct reality" and believes that regulatory authorities play a significant role in the construction and maintenance of that reality.

Societies in different parts of the world have different views on what is considered 'moral' or 'true' is influenced by social actions. Hines (1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1991), in a series of articles criticising mainstream financial accounting research, believed "[r]eality does not exist independently of accounts of it" (Hines, 1988, p. 8). According to Hines many accounting methods were merely 'cosmetic' or 'arbitrary' if accounting was seen merely describing the characteristics of organizations. There are certain conceptual boundaries in accounting acknowledged by Hines while referring to Meyer (1983, p.236) "the accountants settle the matter by definition, and acquiring boundaries mean, for an organization, acquiring reality" (Hines. 1988, p. 8). Hines takes a constructivism view to accounting regulations.

FASB wants CF to provide completely objective means of measuring economic reality. It is possible to be completely objective when economic reality is comparable universally. Although this is made quite difficult with the economic reality is distorted by frequent collapses of public companies.

Godfrey et al. (2006, p. 432) suggests that this statement should be analysed with respect to both their ontological [2] status and epistemological [3] status.

Ontologically objective statements are made in physics, suggests Mouck (2004) who refers to Searle's theory of institutional reality, where objective [4] entities such as atom, electrons and Black holes exist independent of individuals' mental states (Hines 1988, Mouck 2004). He suggests,

Entities such as corporations, contracts and money, on the other hand, are ontologically subjective entities, since their mode of existence does depend on the mental state of the perceiver (Mouck 2004, p. 259).

Having said this Searle believes that the observer-related objects in this world are ontologically subjective, which in that sense are created by individuals. Mouck concludes "ontologically subjective does not prevent claims about observer-related features from being epistemologically objective" (Searle, 1995, p. 13; Mouck, 2004, p. 530).

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Social status is given validation through consensus building procedure about the "rules of the game". This permits the production of accounting numbers, which the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and FASB purport as the neutral representation of financial reporting (Solomons' 1991; Mouck 2004). This consensus building procedure tries to achieve neutral representation of economic which can then be called "epistemologically objective facts" (Mouck 2004). Mouck argues that while the monetary amounts assigned to accounting numbers have no objective basis in either "brute physical reality or institutional reality", the collective acceptance of the FASB's rules gives an epistemologically objective fact within the context of those rules (Mouck 2004, 531; Mouck 2004, 537).

The evidence above does suggest that accounting practices are assigned to reflect economic reality. The financial regulators are under pressure to review the rules of accounting every time a major company collapses or there is a stock market collapse. This would mean that no one can be completely sure of the economic reality because the change in rules would mean the accounting numbers yesterday would be somewhat meaningless today. Social reality is reflected by economic reality which in turn is reflected by accounting standards. CF would, in all its attempts, strive to be completely objective but the reality is accounting practices are what society thinks is best at that time. In conclusion, the statement "A conceptual framework cannot provide a completely objective means of measuring economic reality since such a reality does not exist independent of accounting practices" would be true.