Money: Accounting Police

Who created accounting principles? Who sets and revises accounting standards? What if you don’t follow all the rules, do you go to jail? Is there an accounting police force that investigates and arrests violators? It would seem that there must be some regulatory force to make sure that providers of financial statements conform to the rules. There is, up to a point, and here is how it works:

Mainly, it’s all voluntary and it works pretty well. First, double-entry accounting originated in Italy in the 1400’s, so its been around awhile. Accounting principles have evolved over the years just as have accounting standards. The reason why the system works is that the business community could not function if there was not commonality and consistency in financial statement reporting. It would be chaos, much like if there were no driving rules of the road.

Therefore, in the United States, a body of experts known as the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB pronounced Fasbee) was established in 1973, which superseded another board called the Accounting Principles Board (APB). The FASB members go through a lengthy process of analyzing and reviewing problems in the accounting field that are brought to them. After much thought, they will make a pronouncement as to what they think the new or revised way of approaching the treatment of an accounting issue should be.

They are a non-governmental organization that has private financing. A big supporter of FASB is the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Many Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) belong to this prestigious organization and are obligated to abide by its guidelines and principles of behavior. Other countries no doubt have similar organizations that require high levels of accounting professional conduct.

FASB established an accounting code called “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles” or (GAAP). The assumption is that if a business financial statement is prepared according to GAAP, then the user of that financial statement could rely on or trust the information more readily than if not prepared according to GAAP. Those businesses that deviate from GAAP, and many smaller businesses do, cannot say that their statements are prepared under GAAP; in fact, they should inform the reader that they are not. However, let the buyer beware.

One governmental body that has a policing function is the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). It is primarily concerned with public companies because their job is to protect investors from unscrupulous acts. Recently, the SEC has gotten into the act of establishing accounting standards. It has its hands full today.

Since most businesses use their financial statements to prepare their required income tax returns, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) may audit those tax returns and review the financial statements upon which the tax returns are based. Not following the rules can get you in trouble with this governmental body.

You can see that in many ways compliance to the principles and standards is a mixture of voluntary and regulatory behavior. Currently, there is an effort underway to set international accounting standards due to the inexorable globalization process. This is a massive undertaking that will take years, but it is obviously necessary and inevitable.


Accounting Professionals: Are They Necessary?

Does your business needs an outside accountant?

It all depends. If you require an audited or reviewed financial statement, then, yes, you need a CPA. In any event, it is always a good idea to maintain a relationship with an accountant no matter how small your business. Whether your accountant is a CPA is up to you. The real question is: To what extent do you need outside accounting services? That also depends on you and the nature of your business.

I always start with the admonition: The Buck Stops With You! You cannot afford to dissociate yourself from understanding the meaning of your financial statements. If you solely rely on your accounting staff or accountant for completely accurate financial data, then you are asking for trouble. If you are going to own or manage a business, then you have a responsibility to learn how to speak the language of business. The language of business is accounting knowledge.

How involved you become in the accounting process will be determined by time schedules, your mental pre-disposition, desire for control, cash flow, etc. One scenario, if you can afford it, is to hire an internal accounting staff to prepare financial statements on a monthly basis and have an external accountant check them over. Another common scenario is to prepare part of the compilation yourself, such as preparing a sales journal and a cash disbursements journal, and then hire an outside accountant to prepare a bank reconciliation and the financial statements for you. Some do this on a monthly basis, others quarterly. Some business owners do the books themselves all year and turn them over to the accountant at the end of the year to verify the balances and do the depreciation entry for tax purposes.

There are numerous ways to work with an accountant. Regardless, you should learn enough about accounting to be able to communicate intelligently with your accountant. Since you are intimately involved in your business you may recognize danger signals that not even your accountant will see.

Selecting an accountant

Relying on the yellow pages to find an accountant can be risky. The best way to find any professional is by a referral. However, you need to interview prospective accountants before signing on. One of the first priorities is to find out what their experience level is. Your business may have very specific accounting and tax issues that require a certain amount of expertise. Perhaps you have a manufacturing concern. What does the accountant know about raw materials, work-in-process, and finished goods inventory accounting? Does the accountant know how to set up job-costing and overhead burdens? Ask for references from other like-kind businesses.

Keep in mind, that you may go to an established firm with a good reputation, but with whom are you going to have a relationship? Is your account large enough to warrant a relationship with a partner? You need to feel confident with the person assigned to your account. Perhaps a smaller firm with four or five accountants who are all seasoned veterans might work better.

You will also want someone with whom you can relate. The ability to communicate is a crucial factor. Your accountant may be technically proficient but can you understand what he or she is telling you? Does he or she listen when you ask questions? Don’t be afraid to ask for someone else if you are having difficulty communicating.

Another important criterion is “accessibility”. Is your accountant too busy to talk to you? Can you get your questions answered within a reasonable period of time? Do you feel important to him or her? Situations may arise where you need information immediately to make an important business or tax decision, will your accountant respond quickly?

Last, but not least, are the accountant’s billing practices. Billing practices vary from firm to firm. Some firms are very aggressive and put tremendous pressure on staff and partners to bill every minute they can. Some firms require a review process before any work goes out the door. This means that every person who performs any work on your account, including the person who puts the stamp on your envelope, bills you for it.

Find out in advance what happens if you call the firm to ask a simple question that takes less than five minutes to answer. Are you billed for five minutes or are you billed in increments of fifteen minutes even though you only talked for five? Some firms justify this increment billing by explaining that you are paying for the accountant’s expertise that may have taken years to acquire, therefore, they say, it’s worth it.

Some accounting practitioners charge a flat rate for services rendered or a combination of flat services and hourly charges. For instance, an accountant might charge $200 a month to prepare a monthly financial statement but charge $100 an hour for special projects. Within the monthly fee, the client can call to ask questions that last fifteen minutes or less for no additional charge. This way the client is not reticent about calling. Getting your question answered may prevent little problems from later becoming bigger more expensive problems.

Very often projects take longer to complete than anticipated. Complications arise and the practitioner should be paid for his or her work. Always insist that, if there are going to be additional charges over and above what has been agreed upon, that the accountant gets your approval first. Be sure to clarify these procedures before engaging an accountant in an “engagement letter”. This is a document that spells out the responsibilities of both parties and how the relationship is going to work.

Remember, there is absolutely no reason to be intimidated by your accountant. After all, you are paying for the services, and I promise you, the accountant wants your business.