The fair representation of financial statements
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The Financial Reporting Standards Board was formed to resolve the problems faced by the international financial reporting regiment. In particular, it hopes to promote the standardization of international accounting standards through its International Accounting Standards (IASs) to facilitate transactions and improve financial markets. Underscoring the FRSB's philosophy is to enable the 'fair presentation' of financial statements. This report discusses this concept and evaluates whether the application of a standardized accounting reporting regiment would achieve its objectives with a critical examination of some accounting standards.
2. FAIR PRESENTATION DEFINED
Whenever we mention the 'fair presentation' of financial statements, we are referring to the accounting concept of 'true and fair' view. The phrase 'true and fair' in an accounting context does not have the same meaning as true and fair in a general context. Thus, 'true' in an accounting context does not mean in accordance with the facts or not false and 'fair' in an accounting context does not mean just or unbiased.
The most generally accepted interpretation of true and fair in an accounting context is that accounts are true and fair if they are prepared and presented in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles. Thus courts have held that accounts based on historical cost present a true and fair view. Riley has pointed out that the various Companies Acts require the presentation of a true and fair view and not the true and fair view. The implication is that in a particular circumstance no single view is true and fair but that there are several views each of which is true and fair. Presumably, any generally accepted accounting method provides a true and fair view.
There are some who argue that different accounting standards does not inhibit the adoption of fair presentation while others believe that a uniform international standard like IAS is the best means of achieving fair presentation of financial statements.
3. THE CASE FOR DIFFERENT ACCOUNTING STANDARDS
3.1 Diversity is Desirable
It has been argued by some that a range of accounting methods is desirable because of the diverse circumstances of different businesses. In some circumstances one method would be desirable and in other circumstances some other method would be most appropriate. Diverse accounting methods are necessary because of diverse circumstances. For example, it could be argued that when a non-controlling interest in another company is acquired and where there is a substantial influence over its policies, the equity method would reflect the circumstances more accurately than simply showing the investment at cost.
Given a variety of accounting methods, it is argued that management should choose the one which best reflects the unique circumstances of the situation. The ability to choose the most appropriate method should lead to comparability of accounting reports. More meaningful comparisons would be possible because accounting reports reflect the circumstances in each case. The independent auditor should ensure that management selects the most appropriate method for the presentation of a true and fair view. If management does not choose the best method, the auditor will not confirm the presentation of a true and fair view and a qualified audit report should result.
3.2 Arguments Against International Financial Reporting Standards
Just as there are many compelling arguments in favour of IAS, there are also equally compelling arguments against it. One of the major criticisms against IFRS is that poorly developed and developing countries view it as a form of imposition of rules or neo-colonization by economically superior countries (Mednick, 1991). Secondly, standardization goes against the inherently flexible nature of accounting. One of the key principles of accounting is substance over form, so providing international standards would be contrary to this. When accounting rules are standardized or harmonized, they cannot possibly be flexible enough to fit into the enormous scope of different national situations, legal systems, stages of economic growth and cultural differences. Instead of aiding progress, such rigid and inflexible standards may actually hinder it.
Next, some experts argue that it will be very difficult for international accounting standards bodies like the IASB to reach a universal consensus on some issues. As a result, concessions and compromises will have to be made so that it becomes acceptable to the international community (Berton, 2000). When this happens, the standards become inadequate and permissive. Another argument against international accounting standards is that it could be dangerous as the standards may erode profits and cause volatility in the balance sheets of the companies (Parker, 2002). As a result, companies need to educate their investors about the effects of international accounting standards on the reported profits and liabilities.
Finally, some have expressed concern that international standardization or harmonization may cause "standard overload". Companies that have to deal with social, political, national and economic pressure will be overextended to comply with the more complex and expensive international requirements. This may add to operating costs.
4. THE CASE FOR INTERNATIONAL FINANCIAL REPORTING STANDARDS
4.1 Problems with Diversity
There is the availability of a wide choice of accounting methods. For many transactions, accountants are able to choose from a selection of accounting methods each of which is equally acceptable and which often give widely different results. However, there are two main types of criticism leveled against this kind of diversity.
One, it is suggested that the availability of several acceptable alternative accounting methods for a single transaction could make the accounting reports of different companies non-comparable. Differences in reported results could reflect different accounting procedures rather than different performances. For example, suppose that Company A expensed all research and development expenditure, used FIFO for inventory and depreciated its assets on a straight-line basis. Any differences in the reported profits and balance sheets of the two companies would be due, at least in part, to differences in accounting procedures and any assessment of relative performance and financial position would be difficult to make. The critics argue that diversity in accounting methods reduce the utility of accounting reports by measuring corporate performance in different ways.
Two, it is also suggested that the availability of different accounting methods allows management to choose those methods which give the desired result. In other words, profits could be manipulated by the choice of accounting method. If management wants lower profits, conservative accounting procedures could be used. Choosing accounting procedures to satisfy management objectives is sometimes described as creative accounting. In America, researchers have found substantial evidence of creative accounting. The critics regard creative accounting as particularly bad and conclude that financial statements cannot be used with any confidence to measure or compare managerial performance.
The common element of these two criticisms is that the availability of a choice of accounting methods leads to a lack of comparability in accounting reports.
4.2 Increased Disclosure
The second argument for IAS is to seek increased disclosure. Two types of increased disclosure are suggested. One, it is argued that the problems of diversity could be at least partially overcome by detailed disclosure of accounting method. Under this proposal, accounting reports would include a statement of the methods used to compute depreciation, unearned income, inventory and so on. It is suggested that this additional data would enable statement users to recast the accounting reports into a form suitable for comparison with the reports of other years or other companies.
Two, it is suggested that where an accounting method is different from that used in the previous report, the fact of the change of method and the effect of the change on reported profits or balance sheet items should both be disclosed. With this additional information statement users would be able to restate the accounting reports of a company to make them comparable on an interpreted basis. The effect of creative accounting would be disclosed.
It should be noted that the increased disclosure response leaves companies and their auditors with a choice from a range of accounting methods. Diversity in accounting method is not reduced. The increased disclosure allows statement users to make accounting reports comparable by recasting them in the form they need.
Increased disclosure is a solution to the problem of diversity can be criticized on the grounds that the benefits may not be shared equally by all statement users. It requires a statement user with accounting skills to recast financial reports on a comparable basis. Statement users without access to these skills would receive no benefits from these additional disclosures. Indeed, they may be worse off as sophisticated statement users recast the financial reports and to make better decisions. Any solution to the diversity problem which places the one on statement users and which could therefore discriminates against a group of users is clearly unsatisfactory.
4.3 Increased Uniformity
It is also widely believed that a universal adoption of IAS would contribute to uniformity of financial statements internationally. When different standards are used, it is sometimes difficult to compare the financial performance of two companies. Comparability would eliminate misunderstandings about the reliability of foreign financial statements and would remove one of the most important impediments to the flow of international investment. Narrowing the range of choice of accounting methods is usually described as increasing uniformity. In most cases, increased uniformity is achieved by issuing statements of accounting principles or standards which specify the accounting method for a particular transaction or event.
Increased uniformity means that the same accounting methods are likely to be used in the same circumstances by different companies and at different times. The onus is on management and accountants rather than statement users. There are several arguments used to support the case for greater uniformity of accounting method. Firstly, the most important argument is that uniformity of accounting procedures will allow comparisons of accounting reports. Similar situations will be reported in a similar way and results will be directly comparable. Any difference in reported results will be due to differences in the circumstances and not in the accounting method.
Secondly, many accountants believe that increased uniformity would make their jobs much easier. Choosing an accounting procedure is for many accountants time consuming and difficult. It may lead to conflict between management which wants creative accounting and accountants who believe that another method is more appropriate. With uniformity, the chance of conflict over accounting method would be reduced.
Thirdly, with uniformity, accountants would be better able to defend their procedures in court. Because their choices would be limited, they could not be accused or choosing an accounting method to meet the needs of any particular group. This in an important consideration for accountants.
4.4 Cost Benefits
There are numerous financial benefits of having IAS. The first is that it decreases the cost of data collection (Choi et al, 1999). Time and money will be saved on consolidating divergent financial information when more than one set of reports is required to comply with the different national laws or practice. Secondly, it is believed that the ease of comparison of information and the reduced cost of collecting data will help spur the development of capital markets through the inflow of foreign capital (Don and Thomas, 1995). Investors, financial analysts and foreign leaders will be able to understand the financial statements of foreign companies and they would be able to compare the investment opportunities that will assist them to make the correct investment decision. This in turn will also facilitate the movement of funds. As taxes are levied on the total income of a business, it would be of great help to national tax authorities around the world if net income was calculated on similar accounting principles and practices. In addition, this will provide firms with a competitive advantage. International accounting and disclosure standards would make it easier to conduct the competitive and operational analyses needed to run a business. It will also become easier for top management to manage important relationship with stakeholders such as customers and suppliers. Multinational corporations will benefit the most and it will also become easier for them to fulfil the disclosure requirements for international stock exchanges. Finally, harmonization of accounting standards will decrease audit costs and increase the efficiency of the audit (Choi et al, 1999).
5. DIFFERENCES IN ACCOUNTING TREATMENT
To better understand how universal adoption of IAS would eliminate differences in accounting treatment, let us consider some examples of divergent accounting treatment. For this purpose, a comparison is made between IASs and the United States Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (US-GAAP).
5.1 Changes in Depreciation or Amortization Method
According to IAS 16 and IAS 38, there is an explicit stipulation that changes in depreciation or amortization method must be accounted for as a change in estimate. However, US-GAAP treats these changes as changes in policy by demonstrating the cumulative effect of the change in the income statement. These require retrospective changes, which are not required by IAS.
5.2 Impairment of Assets
IAS 36 uses a discounted impairment trigger, because the value in use is by definition a discounted value. Reversal of impairment losses recognized in prior years is allowed. On the other hand, in the US-GAAP, if the sum of the expected cash flows is less than the carrying amount of the asset, the entity shall recognize an impairment loss. This means that the impairment trigger is an undiscounted amount. Reversal of previously recognized impairment losses is prohibited for assets to be held and used.
5.3 Impairment of Goodwill
According to IAS, the recoverable amount of a cash generating unit should be compared with the carrying value of its net assets. Resulting impairment losses should first be deducted from goodwill and then from other assets on a pro-rata basis. However, US-GAAP requires determination of the implied fair value of the goodwill. If the implied fair value is less than its carrying value, this carrying amount should be reduced. Such a goodwill impairment test cannot affect the carrying values of other assets.
5.4 Business Combinations in-process Research and Development
For IAS, purchased in-process research and development that meets the recognition criteria for an intangible asset should be valued at fair value. Even if it is not a separate identifiable intangible asset, the IAS method results in capitalization of those costs as part of goodwill. Under US-GAAP, purchased in-process research and development assets both tangible and intangible should be charged to expense at acquisition date if no alternative future use for the assets can be determined.
6. INCONSISTENCIES IN IAS
Although IASs are deemed to improve fair reporting, there are occasional inconsistencies that often hamper their effectiveness. Indeed, the IASB has tried to correct some of these inconsistencies, but there are still flaws in the overall framework. The following are some of the inconsistencies that have been corrected in recent years.
6.1 Classification of Tonnage Taxes in IAS 112
In some countries, shipping companies are allowed to choose to be taxed on the basis of tonnage transported, tonnage capacity or a notional profit instead of the standard corporate income tax regulations. In the past, tonnage capacity was regarded as a basis for taxable income. This is based on a flawed assumption. Income taxes are calculated on taxable profit which implies net, rather than gross amount. Taxes either on tonnage transported or tonnage capacity are based on gross instead of net amount. Therefore, such taxes would not be considered income taxes and would not be presented as part of tax expenses in the statement of comprehensive income.
6.2 Accounting for Sales Cost in IAS 38
Some problems arise among real estate developers. IAS 2 does not permit selling costs to be capitalized as inventory if the real estate units are considered to be inventory. However, other standards conclude that some direct and incremental costs recoverable as a result of securing a specifically identifiable contract with a customer may be capitalized in narrow circumstances, for example in IAS 11 (Paragraph 21) and IAS 18 (Appendix 14(b)(iii)). Hence, it is not possible to reach a conclusion on the appropriate accounting for board categories of selling and marketing costs in all circumstances.
6.3 Disclosure of Idle Assets and Construction in Progress in IAS 16
In accordance with paragraph 74(b) of IAS 16, an entity is required to disclose the amount of expenditures recognized in the carrying amount of an item of property, plant and equipment in the course of its construction. Paragraph 79(a) encourages an entity to disclose the amount of property, plant and equipment that is temporarily idle. Paragraph 112(c) of IAS 1 requires an entity to provide in the notes information that is not presented elsewhere in the financial statements that is relevant to their understanding. The disclosure regarding idle assets might be particularly relevant in the current economic environment. Therefore, IASB should review all disclosures encouraged with the objective of either confirming that they are required or eliminating them.
To end, all accountants agree that the fair presentation of accounting and financial statements is important. However, what exactly constitutes 'fair presentation' is a contentious and debatable matter. Some insist that adopting IFRS is the best way of achieving this objective while others assert that substance is more important than form and that it is perfectly acceptable to use different accounting standards so long as it shows some form of 'fair presentation'. While I personally believe that it would be ultimately benefit the international financial community to have one standard to prevent confusion, its implementation is still some years away.