What does off-balance sheet mean – Vatican off-balance sheet cash
In December 2014, the media (see here for example) noted how millions for euro were “off-balance” sheet. According to reports from the Vatican “some hundreds of millions of Euros were tucked away in particular sectional accounts and did not appear on the balance sheet”. So how can this happen, and what does off-balance sheet actually mean?
Let’s go back to basics first. A balance sheet shows assets, liabilities and equity. Assets are essentially something an organisation own’s or has use of like a owner; a liability is a claim against the business. Both must be measurable in monetary terms. So for example, many large firm’s brands have values in $billions put on them, but these are off-balance sheet assets which are off-balance sheet because the value cannot be measured accurately in money terms.
In other cases, such a the Vatican example, assets can be seemingly omitted from the balance sheet. This is of course not a recommended practice. How is this done? Well, it is a little bit more complex than this, but essentially something is omitted from the books of the organization. Remember, now matter how complex an organization is, underneath its accounting system is the good old double entry system of accounting. If a transaction (e.g. bank account) is omitted from the double entry accounts, that’s it, it does not appear on the balance sheet.