What’s so important and interesting about accounting

In January, I took a very short intensive introductory course to financial accounting. When I first signed up for it, I cringed to think what my old Nietzsche-thesis advisor would think of such a practical and putatively boring endeavor. But I actually – I really mean this and I’m not just writing this to impress some future employer – found it very intrinsically interesting. So this will just be a brief post in which I’ll expend what I learned, by telling you what’s so interesting and important about accounting. After that, I want to give a brief intro to some of the basic ideas and concepts of accounting, partly because I had been frustrated, when I first started the course, that they are not usually explained well to people who are not already familiar with the field.

So first, what is financial accounting? I would define it as the set of rules and concepts we use to prepare relatively simple financial statements that capture or represent important truths about a firm and convey them to outsiders—both what the firm is worth now and what it’s doing on an ongoing basis. This definition suggests both (1) why accounting is important and (2) why I think accounting is interesting.

First, financial accounting is very important because the information that firms convey to outsiders determines whether, how much, and on what terms those outsiders lend to or invest in those firms. We as a society have limited amounts of capital to invest and lend. So we have an interest in that capital being used very wisely. We want it to be lent to or invested in firms that will use it productively, doing innovative and transformative things, and not lent to or invested in, e.g., hopeless companies overseen by feckless managers who are desperate for another lifeline when, in fact, their business models are outdated. The world would be better off today if more capital had gone to Apple and less to Pets.com during the 1990s. We also want investors and creditors of firms – after they have invested or lent – to continue to have an accurate picture of what’s going on inside a firm, so that they can monitor and pressure managers to behave and do well. In this vein of thought, it’s really not an overstatement to say that modern capitalism—in which public companies, owned by outside shareholders, must compete in capital markets to access the capital they need to grow—depends on good accounting. (Lastly: we as a society also increasingly want information about things like, e.g., how a firm is effecting and harming the natural environment, so we can figure out how best to regulate and efficiently abate these costs—this will become a more significant part of accounting in the future.)

Second, accounting is interesting because capturing and representing the truth about a firm is an intellectually challenging and fraught endeavor. The fundamental truth about a firm is actually fairly chaotic—a million different things of varying importance are going on at once—and we need to figure out rules for distilling some simple but accurate summary from this chaos. Accounting is in this sense a philosophical enterprise. The world itself does not label things as ‘assets’ or ‘expenses’; rather, we humans decide which labels we apply to which things; and we set rules for doing so based off of imperfect intuitions and ideas that involve human social ideas like justice (i.e., we want accounting standards that will promote fair and beneficial outcomes for society as a whole via efficiency and transparency) and conservatism (i.e., we want standards that will prevent managers of firms from doing self-servingly optimistic reporting, because we think that people can be selfish). I think it’s also helpful to analogize accounting to statistics, which is also about distilling useful trends from the chaos of data. How tall are women compared to men? Obviously, the fundamental truth is that there are 3.5 billion+ men in the world, each of a different height; and 3.5 billion+ women, each of a different height. Chaos, in other words. But if we have a research project that hinges on the relationship between gender and height, we have to find some simple way to describe the general relationship between these two populations. Statistics provides us with a way to extract out of the real world some useful artifices: The heights of the “average man” and the “average woman” (neither of whom actually exist as real things in the real world), and the standard deviation of each population—four simple numbers that capture most of what we need to know.

That’s why there’s actually a surprising amount of contention in accounting. For example, in the U.S., publicly listed firms issue financial statements according to U.S. GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles); in the EU, most countries require their firms to use IFRS (International Financial Reporting Standards). The U.S. has been planning, for years, to ‘converge’ its accounting standards with the IFRS—but this convergence has been slowed and stopped at various points, due to ineliminable disagreements. If representing the truth about a company were a simple, scientific enterprise, this would not be the case. Both U.S. GAAP and IFRS are constantly updated to keep up with business and financial innovation. How do firms account for some new complicated financial transaction, when the underlying goods don’t have the words ‘asset’ or ‘expense’ or ‘liability’ branded on them? That’s up to the bodies that oversee GAAP and IFRS—and both bodies pay lots of very smart people very good money to debate these rules all year.

A more practical introduction to financial accounting:

In practice, financial accounting results in the production of four financial statements. These statements are produced by accountants within a firm, and checked (or ‘audited’) by independent accounts outside the firm, and then disclosed in companies’ official public filings, such as quarterly and annual reports. Under GAAP, these four financial statements are: (1) the Balance Sheet, (2) the Income Statement, (3) the Statement of Retained Earnings, and (4) the Statement of Cash Flows. The most important, in my view, are the Balance Sheet and the Income Statement; so I want to just describe the basic concepts of, and sources of confusion around, these two financial statements, and then describe the basic idea of the other two more briefly.

The Balance Sheet

The Balance Sheet is supposed to capture what a firm is worth at a single point in time. It reports the company’s Assets, its Liabilities, and its Shareholders’ Equity. The Balance Sheet is based around the “accounting equation,” which you may have come across: Assets = Liabilities + Shareholders’ Equity. To understand this, you first need to know that Shareholders’ Equity, in accounting, is not the equity that gets traded in stock markets. Rather, Shareholders’ Equity in accounting is an accounting contrivance that is sort of defined as Assets – Liabilities. This means that the accounting equation is a simple identity. I just wanted to clarify that up front, because it tripped me up for two whole days when I first started with accounting, and not every textbook conveys it explicitly. Now, I think the best way to make the accounting equation clear, from here, is to illustrate it with a stylized story:

Suppose you start your own company. At the beginning, you invest $10,000 of your own money. The $10,000 you invested immediately becomes an asset of the company—cash on hand that the company can use. And because you, the owner, have invested this money yourself, and not taken out any loans, that $10,000 in assets is your equity in the company—if you shut the company down tomorrow, you could take the whole $10,000. So when you first invest $10,000 in your own company, the company has $10,000 in assets (cash) and $10,000 in equity, with no liabilities. $10,000 = 0 + $10,000. Get it? Now, suppose your next move is to pay $10,000 up front to rent a storefront for two years. You might think this $10,000 payment is an expense, but on the Balance Sheet, we consider this ‘prepaid rent’ an asset, because you’ll be able to use that storefront over the next two years in ways that will help you earn money. (Prepaying for rent is, in this sense, conceptually similar to buying, say, an annuity—both will pay out income for a set period, so both are assets.) So what did we do to the Balance Sheet and accounting equation? We just changed $10,000 worth of the asset ‘cash’ into $10,000 worth of the asset ‘prepaid rent.’ So the accounting equation is still at $10,000 = 0 + $10,000; on the Balance Sheet, all we did was change the name of the asset. How do we know that the ‘prepaid rent’ is truly worth $10,000? We don’t. In fact, you might hope that you’ve gotten a great deal on this storefront, and it’s truly worth $12,000. But we can’t just let you report the value of an asset at what you think its true worth is—you’ll probably inflate the value of all of your assets if we do. So GAAP requires you to be conservative, and report the value of your assets at the cost of their purchase—and to hold onto the receipt so you can prove it.

Next, suppose that you now need to buy inventory to fill up your store with goods that you can sell. You don’t have any cash left, so you go to bank, get a $10,000 loan and then use that loan to buy $10,000 worth of inventory. What just happened to our accounting equation? Well, inventory is an asset, because you can sell it to generate income, and the loan is a liability, because you’re liable for paying it back to the bank. So now you have: assets of $10,000 in prepaid rent and $10,000 in inventory… a $10,000 liability… and $10,000 in equity. $20,000 = $10,000 + $10,000. The accounting equation is still in balance. Get it? Now, things will get slightly harder. Suppose that over the first year, you sell half of your inventory for $25,000. What do we report at the end of the year? Well, since you’ve sold half your inventory, what you have left is only worth $5,000; in addition, you’ve now used up half the value of your prepaid rent. So those two assets are now worth only $10,000 combined. Meanwhile, you’ve just earned $25,000 in cash—an asset. So your total assets are now worth $35,000. But you still owe the bank $10,000, a liability, so your equity in the total assets owned by your company is now $25,000. And it makes sense that your equity increased by $15,000 total over the course of the year, because you just earned $25,000 by expending $10,000.

So you can see how, here, the accounting equation Assets = Liabilities + Shareholders’ Equity, must always be true, simply because of how we’ve defined the terms. It’s an identity. When you purchase assets in the first place, that purchase must have been financed by either debt or equity; if you purchase a new asset using the income you generated (i.e., reinvesting earnings), then that income had technically flowed through equity (since owners are entitled to profits), and so, again, your assets increase by the same amount as your equity. Hopefully you can use your imagination to see how this identity will still hold up when, e.g., the owner sells her shares to the public in an IPO; or the company has negative income for a year (say, using up $5,000 of a rent expense and $5,000 of inventory, and only getting $8,000 in income–thereby reducing Shareholders’ Equity by $2,000).

I’ve skipped over pretty much all of the actual details about how you put together a Balance Sheet—how you ‘depreciate’ the value of an asset over time, etc. But I hope I’ve conveyed the conceptual gist. The Balance Sheet is supposed to capture the value of a firm at a point in time—what assets does the company control, what portion of the value of those assets is owed to creditors, and, hence, how much of that value do we say belongs to equity owners?

But as I hinted above, Balance Sheet ‘Equity’ is not actually equal to the equity we’re used to—the equity that trades on stock markets at prices graphed on CNBC. In fact, usually they’re radically different. And this fact is a key to understanding the virtues and the limitation of the Balance Sheet. Necessarily, the difference means that investors do not value a company in the same way that the balance sheet does. I.e., the ‘market value’ usually does not equal the ‘book value’; or, investors disagree with the Balance Sheet about what a company is worth. Why is this the case? What accounts for this difference? In my understanding, there are two basic components to the difference:

First, the ‘true’ market value of assets and liabilities is different from their accounting or ‘book’ values, and investors are interested in market values. For example, suppose your company bought an office building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for $4 million in 1993. You might be required to value this asset on your Balance Sheet at $2 million right now (the historical purchase price, minus 20 years of depreciation expenses); but because Williamsburg has gentrified and New York City in general has revived so much since 1993, chances are the actual market value of your building is well over $4 million. (Alternatively, if you bought a building in downtown Tokyo during the height of the Japanese real-estate bubble in 1988, chances are your balance sheet overstates the value of that asset—which is one reason Japanese banks keep holding onto old real-estate investments. Similarly, some U.S. banks have been trading at below their book values, suggesting that investors think they will have to recognize losses on many of the assets they purchased before the financial crisis.) So while we have good reason for accounting for assets at their historical cost—namely, stopping managers from over-optimistically over-representing the value of their assets—this requirement means that assets are not reported at their ‘true’ value.

Second, and more importantly, investors do not simply value a company according to how much they would get if the company were to liquidate today. Rather, equity investors are also interested in owning a slice of all of the company’s prospective future profits. And this capability hinges on things like (1) the reputation it’s gained with customers and (2) the margins in the particular market space it’s entering, to name just two—things that are not captured on the Balance Sheet. That is, investors are interested not just in a company’s assets right now, but in its ability to generate income and profits on an ongoing basis into the future. And this, dear readers (thanks for your patience!), brings us to the Income Statement.


The Income Statement

The income statement is the financial statement that’s supposed to represent how the company is doing on an ongoing basis—the proverbial ‘bottom line’ refers to the company’s ‘net income’ which is listed, literally, on the bottom line of the income statement. Because net income is calculated for an ongoing basis, the income statement covers a period of time (the last fiscal year, in the annual report), rather than a particular point in time—i.e., it represents a flow, rather than a stock. The basics of the income statement are actually quite straightforward: for a firm, as for you and me, ‘net income’ is just revenue minus the expenses incurred in earning that revenue. The Income Statement just lists all the firm’s revenues, all of its expenses (including things like taxes), and then subtracts, and reports net income on the bottom line. It’s basically that simple. But there are a couple of extra interesting things we need to understand in order to get the significance of the Income Statement:

First, the Income Statement is fundamentally linked up with the Balance Sheet. For example, in each year, when you earn a positive net income (‘earnings’), you either pay out that income to owners as dividends or reinvest those earnings in the company, thereby increasing Shareholders’ Equity on the Balance Sheet. If you suffer a loss in a year, then the loss (by definition) reduces your assets without reducing your liabilities; so the loss is reflected in a decrease in Shareholders’ Equity. This is all laid out explicitly in the Statement of Shareholders’ Equity (see below); but it’s important to understand conceptually how the ‘slice in time’ valuation/financial position of a company  in the Balance Sheet is constantly being ‘updated’ by its flow of profits and losses as reported by the Income Statement. I.e., profits and losses flow through the Income Statement onto the Balance Sheet.

Second, the major counterintuitive thing about the Income Statement is that income is reported on an ‘accrual basis’ rather than a ‘cash basis.’ That is, to calculate your net income for a year, you don’t just subtract the cash you’ve paid out from the cash you’ve received (this would be ‘cash basis’); rather, you calculate the revenues you’ve ‘earned’ and subtract the expenses you’ve ‘accrued’. Let’s illustrate using the example company we worked with above, in the section on the Balance Sheet: At the beginning of the first year, I had paid out $10,000 for ‘prepaid rent,’ right? But on the income statement, we don’t record a $10,000 expense in year 1; we only record a $5,000 rent expense at the end of the year, because this is the amount of the asset that I ‘used up’ in earning my revenues in that year. Similarly, since I only sold half of my inventory during year 1, I only record half the cost of purchasing the inventory as an ‘expense’ on my income statement—because this is all the inventory I’ve ‘used up’ in earning my revenues. Finally, if I were to sell some inventory to a customer ‘on account’ (they promise to pay me in three months), I’ve already ‘earned’ this revenue, and so that makes it into the income statement even before they actually pay up.

Why do we do it this way? Well, there are a couple of theoretical and practical reasons. The most abstract theoretical reason is that if I have, e.g., a promise from someone that (s)he will pay me in one month, this promise is technically a financial asset right now, in that I have already secured a good guarantee of a future cash flow. And so, theoretically, I’ve impacted my company’s financial position (Balance Sheet) the moment I’ve earned the promise to pay from somebody else, and not in the moment when (s)he actually hands over the cash. Since the whole conceptual idea of the Financial Statements is that the Income Statement ‘flows in’ to the Balance Sheet, the Income Statement should reflect that I have earned the asset ‘promise to pay $X,’ right away—it shouldn’t wait for the exchange of one asset (cash) for another (the promise).

The more down-to-earth theoretical reason is that the Income Statement is supposed to give a good picture of what you can expect a company’s typical yearly income to be. If I invest $1 million in a building that I can use to earn $200,000 a year for the next 10 years, it doesn’t make sense for me to report a $800,000 loss this year, and a $200,000 profit for the next 9 years. I’m doing the same basic business in each year, so it would be a better representation of my true yearly income to recognize the building-purchase as an investment, and therefore to ‘allocate the expense’ of it over the next 10 years—meaning that I recognize $200,000 revenues and $100,000 of expenses, for $100,000 net income, for each of the 10 years.

And another practical reason to do it this way is that it prevents certain kinds of opportunistic and deceptive ‘earnings management.’ Suppose that you’re a manager of a company. You’ve had a very good year, but you have reason to believe that things are about to turn sour. You might be tempted, if we used cash-basis accounting, to do some creative accounting: For example, you could purchase all of the inventory you’ll need for next year up front (right now); that way, you would increase your ‘expenses’ in this year, and reduce your ‘expenses’ in the next year, smoothing out your earnings over the two years. That way, next year, your investors might not catch on that, actually, your company is going downhill fast, and so you could exercise your stock options at a high price well into your company’s downfall. Good for you; bad for everyone else. See the problem? Accrual accounting—by forcing managers to ‘match’ expenses to the period in which revenues are earned—prevents some of this opportunistic timing of expenses.

So that’s the basic conceptual gist of the Income Statement. The actual implementation is tricky business. ‘Accrual-basis’ accounting has some big advantages, but the downside is that doing an income statement with ‘cash-basis’ accounting would be a lot easier to control—you could just look at people’s cash receipts. With ‘accrual-basis’ accounting, we need lots of complex and debatable rules about how to ‘allocate the expense’ of various investment-purchases over time. And we can’t just match these expenses to reality using tangible cash receipts. The rules that accountants consequently use can get complex, debatable, and subject to judgment and discretion. This is why accounting is a serious profession involving a serious professional exam, etc.


The Statement of Shareholders’ Equity

This is the simplest financial statement, and, in my view, one that doesn’t really convey much extra information, but is just needed to bridge a technical gap between the Income Statement and the Balance Sheet, by reporting dividends, retained earnings, and the company’s transactions with its own owners (new share issues and repurchases). Basically, the Statement of Shareholders’ Equity just explains any changes in the Shareholder Equity figure (as reported on the Balance Sheet) from one year to the next. That figure is effected in intuitive ways by the company’s net income, dividends, and share repurchases/issues. If a firm earns a positive net income, it can distribute those earnings to its shareholders as cash dividends (in which case the money is taken off the company’s balance sheet entirely, because the cash now belongs to whomever it was paid to—the company is a distinct ‘entity’); or it can retain and reinvest those earnings, which increases Shareholder Equity on the balance sheet accordingly. If a company suffers a loss in a year, this detracts from Shareholder Equity directly. So in most years the Statement of Shareholders’ Equity just reports earnings and dividends, subtracts the latter from the former, and adds the difference to the old Shareholder Equity number to get the new Shareholder Equity number. In years in which the company issues new shares, or repurchases outstanding shares, this also shows up on Statement of Shareholders’ Equity.


The Statement of Cash Flows

The final statement is the Statement of Cash Flows. What does it do? Well, if we want our financial statements to give a good picture of the truth about a company, this statement should hopefully plug any gaps of information that other financial statements left out. As the name suggests, the Statement of Cash Flows reports the flow of cash in and out of the company over the past year—how much cash did you have then?; how much do you have now?; what accounts for the difference?; where did it all go?; how much went to investments?; how much was paid out in operations? In theory, you can get all of the information that is presented on the Statement of Cash Flows from the other financial statements. But there are a couple of reasons why it is useful to have a separate Statement of Cash Flows that focuses just on this cash information:

First, if you’re doing business with another firm—lending to them, or servicing or selling to them on account—you’ll want to be paid in cash. And since the Balance Sheet and Income Statement are technically based around the inflow and outflow of assets—not just cash—they may not clearly present all of the information you need. For example, suppose you’re in a bank, and debating whether to lend to a hedge fund. The hedge fund might look great on the Income Statement (earned a 30% ROA last year) and great on the Balance Sheet (a debt-to-equity ratio of only 2-to-1). But if the hedge fund isn’t keeping much cash on hand—indeed is paying a lot of it out to post collateral—and many of its assets are illiquid investments in, e.g, Australian timber woods, the hedge fund could easily get into a situation where it just couldn’t summon the cash to make its interest payments to you. Or suppose you’re doing some contract work for a startup firm that earned a lot of income last year, but hasn’t been able to collect the cash from the other firms it serviced—you might worry that, since they can’t turn their ‘accounts receivable’ into cash, they won’t be able to pay you cash for your work. So there are a lot of situations in which outsiders want to know about the cash situation of a company specifically; but the Income Statement and Balance Sheet focus on assets in general, not cash specifically. So the Cash Flow Statement plugs the gap there.

Second, and finally, the Statement of Cash Flows is also useful for monitoring and guarding against a couple of kinds of misbehavior related to imperfections of the other financial statements. When we went over the Income Statement, I explained why the Income Statement reports revenues and expenses on an ‘accrual basis’; when we talked about the Balance Sheet, I explained why it reports asset and liability values at their ‘historical cost.’ The way I think about the design of the Cash Flow Statement is that it is a useful check on the kinds of mischief and abuse that can come from those requirements in those statements. For example, because you must record assets such as buildings at their historical cost minus their depreciation, the ‘book’ value of these assets can be very different from their ‘true’ or market value. This provides a very ripe opportunity for earnings manipulation. Suppose your company’s basic business model is falling apart, and every day you’re losing money on your actual core operations—in this year, you’ll lose $6 million on operations. Suppose also that you own that building in Williamsburg whose ‘book value’ is now $2 million, but whose real, market value is some $10 million. If you sell off that office building, you can report an $8 million ‘gain’ on the sale, which will make up for your $6 million loss on operations, giving you $2 million in positive net income. With this phony liquidation, you can make things look good this year, increasing your assets, and bringing home big net income, even though this business model is clearly not sustainable. But whereas your Balance Sheet and Income Statement will look fine if you use this strategy, your Cash Flow Statement will reveal what you’re doing. The reason is that Cash Flow statements are divided into three separate sections: cash flows from operations (at top); cash flows from investing activities; and cash flows from financing activities. By clearly decomposing cash flows into these three separate categories (as opposed to the aggregation in the income statement), the Cash Flow Statement helps outsiders better monitor the success of your actual day-to-day operating activities.


This post doesn’t even scratch the surface of the detailed processes through which accounting actually happens. I just hoped to convey the theoretical concepts and an outsider’s appreciation for (a) how the four financial statements work together to represent the truth about a firm and (b) how our economy as a whole depends on that. The big takeaways from this post, I hope, are (1) accounting is interesting, because it involves a lot of complex and philosophical questions about ‘what is the truth about a company’s value, and how do we capture and distill it in a few numbers?’; (2) accounting is important, because the rules we use to convey information about companies’ value will impact which companies we invest in and which management teams we reward with big bonuses, etc., and so it’s a foundational structure for our economy; and (3) learning some basic accounting is worthwhile, because if you really want to understand what’s going on inside a business, beyond borrowing a few lines from the business press, you need to be able to understand a company’s financials and what they reveal—and, more importantly, what they don’t.

2 thoughts on “What’s so important and interesting about accounting

  1. Thank you for this post – you have explained accounting in very simple terms and helped me gain an insight into why I need to learn this (for a coming exam)!!

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