Accounting dillemas

What are the limitations of accounting information?

Accounting information can be used to assist both financial and managerial oriented decisions. In order to come to effective financial or managerial decisions, many factors other than accounting should be duly considered.

Accounting information is extremely vital in/and for all enterprises though it does have certain limitations.

I. Accounting is only one source of information and primarily provides information based on financial terms: Although this information is vital, decisions cannot be based solely on a monetary basis. Various decisions depend upon a diverse range of issues being considered. A unique combination of Quantitative as well as Qualitative factors should be considered to ensure an effective decision making process.

II. The historical perspective of financial accounting: In order to obtain a recent estimate of an entity’s financial performance, the corporate managers carefully scrutinize financial accounting information. In retrospect, this information is based on past performance. The information does provide clarity on the monetary issues but does not provide a definite insight into the strategic future; as the future holds various changes in terms of technology, economic situations as well as political scenarios etc. Such factors in relation to accounting are unpredictable. Therefore, a careful balance between historical accounting as well as the future forecasted outlook is required.

III. Historical cost accounting vs. underlying value in use: Some items loose their monetary value over a period of time, but under the financial accounting rules need to be included in financial reports. Though mentioned year after year in the books as monetary figures, the information may be unreliable due to the historical assumptions made on the item’s measurability criterion. For example, a machine in a textile factory is considered to have a useful life which extends over a period of ten years in monetary terms; however, after the period of ten years, the machine may still have the same value as prior years and contribute significantly to the overall operability of the factory.

IV. Inability to reflect the true value of strategic management: Various factors such as goodwill and natural circumstances influence the operations of an enterprise; however, these elements are difficult to measure thus, leading to their unavoidable exclusion from financial reports. For example companies depend upon their shareholders, who in turn depend on the performance of the Chief Executive Officers. Although the CEOs may have been hired by the company based upon prior performance, their future performances are not reliably measurable as they may continually vary. In the initial stages, it may be impossible to measure whether the CEO’s presence will deter or appeal to the shareholders, which in turn will influence the profitability of the enterprise.

V. Measuring Volatility of external factors: Financial accounting information does not take into consideration volatile and ever increasing changes in the natural and commercial environment. Although scarcely measurable in monetary terms, their unstable nature may have adverse effects if included within the financial reports and have a volatile and cosmetic impact upon the earnings of the firm. For example, tariffs on trade, duties and other environmental issues can have significant short-term volatile effects on the organisation.

VI. The effect of non-stable monetary unit: Based from region to region, accounting information is generated at all enterprises based on the assumption that the monetary unit is stable over a period of time. In the real world scenario, the unit fluctuates on a daily basis. Enterprises usually decide on a flat rate to calculate their financing and investing needs. However, this can have adverse impacts which cannot be communicated to shareholders, if the unit has high fluctuations. For example: Indonesia 1995 US$ 1 = RP 6000, 1997 US$ 1 = RP 12000, 1999 US$ 1 = RP 9000. (Figures are approximates, just to provide an insight into the argument about the effects of the fluctuations)

From the answer above, it is evident that certain limitations of accounting information have to be taken into consideration before enterprises use merely financial information to aid their decision making process.

What are the challenges for ethics in business? Are they different for accountants?

Ethics is defined as that branch of philosophy concerned with the moral life and consisting of consideration of one’s ordinary actions, judgments and justification as a means of discovering what one ought to do and of determining what actions are morally good, acceptable, or right and what actions are unacceptable or wrong (Campbell, 1989).

A manager within an organisation always faces a conflict of interest between short term profitability and long term sustainability of the entity. If the manager chooses to implement decisions that are beneficial to the entity in the long term, his behaviour is primarily considered to be ethical. However, the goal of achieving short-term profit maximization has been duly compromised. According to self-interest theory an individual seeks to maximize his/her personal utility whereby short-term profit maximization motives could be thought dominate managerial incentives.

Ethicists have developed two frameworks relevant to businesses. They are the Utilitarian and Deontology frameworks. Utilitarianism is defined as the moral correctness of an action based entirely on its consequences whereas Deontology defines moral correctness of an action through the underlying nature of its correctness. Deontology can be divided into two parts where one part considers that action itself is measured thus lying is always unacceptable, on the other hand, the other part considers the cumulative nature of action as well as the consequences and thereby deems that lying could be acceptable under certain circumstances.

Ethics within the scenario of businesses are largely determined by the frameworks outlined above. Business ethics have a large impact upon the global society as fraud and embezzlement can impose large dead-weight losses within the world economy. In Australia, business ethics are primarily defined by the Corporations Law and Accounting Professional Codes Of Conduct such as the ICAA which govern the professional behaviour of the relevant professional members.

Ethical rules for accountants are subtly more stringent than for normal business professionals. Under the assumption, that the ethical behaviour of accountants mirrors the behaviour of the company auditors, I seek to explain the underlying dilemma. The Chief Financial Officer works under the supervision of the Chief Executive Officer of the organisation. His/her primary responsibility is to ensure that the financial reports prepared under his supervision mirrors the true and fair view about the financial. operating and investing decisions of the entity. He is directly accountable to the shareholders for his actions. However, his actions are determined by the leadership of the CEO. If the CEO demands the CFO to incorrectly manipulate the financial reports of the organisation, the individual faces a dilemma. He has a dual sense of responsibility and an ethical situation arises whereby, he/she can either pursue his own self-interests (financial security) or disobey the commands of the CEO and report fairly to the share-holders. Thereby, following the correct spirit of ethical behaviour, his role entails reporting fairly to the shareholders and whistle blowing against the CEO.

Is there a conflict between self-interest and ethical behaviour?

In classical terms, self interest theory and ethical behaviour are deemed to have an eternal conflict. In accounting literature this conflict is termed as “Compensation Plans”

The plan states that managers who have a short-term time horizon with an enterprise and have their bonuses based upon the short-term profitability of the enterprise will be motivated to pursue their personal agendas (wealth) rather than enhance the long-term sustainability of the enterprise. In deontology terms, there is a significant conflict of interest in terms of the ethical behaviour of the manager which could be compromised by the self-interests of the manager who might manipulate the true underlying profitability of the going-concern.

What are the economic consequences of accounting policy choice?

Accounting policies affect the reported figures which appear in the financial statements which affect the wealth of managers.

There are three economic consequences of accounting policy choice:
I. Compensations Plans: In this case the organisational bonus scheme is used to bring the interests of both the managers and the shareholders together. However an economic consequence of the bonus scheme is that managers may also be motivated to cosmetically increase reported profit by the appropriate selection of income-increasing accounting policies which might not mirror the true underlying increase in the reported profits of the entity.

II. Debt contracts: If an entity is approaching the limits of a clause in a debt contract, there are incentives for managers to select appropriate accounting policies which allow the company to avoid being in violation of the debt contract, by income-increasing accounting policies.

III. Political costs: refer to the costs imposed on a company via regulatory bodies. Political costs are hypothesized to be a function of size measured in terms of net profit, total assets or total sales. Political costs create incentives for managers of large organizations to select income-decreasing accounting policies in order to reduce political visibility.

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