It is often said accounting is the language of business. I have been recently putting this to a small test, to see how accounting works across different (spoken) languages and countries. My rather unsophisticated test stems from an experience in 2016 in Italy. While in the Abruzzo region, I came across a church in a mountain village. On it’s notice board were the parish accounts. I do not speak Italian, but my knowledge of the general format and layout of financial statements. combined some common sense, allowed me to understand the accounts quite well.
For my “test”, which I am using for a class I teach as a way to summarise various financial statement formats, I have collected the financial statements of several types/size of company and in several languages – English, Spanish, German and Irish. While I do speak some German and Spanish, my Irish is terrible (sad as an Irish person perhaps). Looking across the various financial statements in these languages – even though different rule and laws may apply – there is a typical structure which implies even a non-speaker can understand the basics. This of course stems from the fact that the double entry system underlies the financial statements, regardless of which language is used in their construction. The look and layout of the financial statements is also a good visual clue as to which statement it is – the balance sheet for example is easy to locate, given its two totals being equal.
In summary, while I am a bit embarrassed to say my Irish is terrible, I was able to understand a balance sheet in Irish – and of course in Spanish and German too. Thus, the results of my “test” – I speak accounting better than Irish!
A pint of the black stuff (Guinness) would be most enjoyable now, ten weeks into “lockdown”. Of course, this is not a lament to me wanting a pint, but there is link to Guinness.
For quite a few years now, media and commentators have highlighted the large profits and low taxes of many companies. Take amazon.com Inc, whose Q1 sales in 2020 reached $75 billion (see here for more), or think of Apple, Facebook or many other companies. Before I say anything further, I am not a total socialist, nor am I a total capitalist – there is a happy medium in there somewhere. You may know from reading previous posts that I do some historic research on the Guinness company. Dennison and MacDonagh (1998) in their book Guinness 1886-1939: from Incorporation to the Second World War provide some very useful insights into the general management of the company, and I will draw on one of these now.
Sometimes I ask myself why do some companies need to make so much profit? On the other hand, in a democratic/capitalist society, they are free to do so. Now, with a serious pandemic gripping the entire world, some of our underlying models are at least being questioned. So my question is could companies be happy with a “living profit”. I first noticed the term in relation to Guinness dealings with Irish malt suppliers around the turn of the 20th century. The company wished to encourage the production of Irish malt, but were not willing to buy at the lowest market price. Instead the company noted a “living profit” should be attainable. What exactly this means is not specified, but the general principle if clear. Today, most (not all) companies seem to want lowest cost everything and highest profits – presumably to keep shareholders/investors at bay. Would it not be a great improvement for us all if more and more firms took the approach of the “living profit” espoused by Guinness over a century ago? I am sure economists and others could give me many reasons why not. But, perhaps it is worth having the conversation as the business world comes back a new normal in the coming months.
I hope a local distillery near my home does not mind me using their graphic above. As we are all dealing with the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic, I was really impressed to see how small local distilleries in Ireland (and indeed elsewhere and some large ones too) have changed to producing alcohol based hand sanitiser.
Many businesses cannot adapt their products to the current scenario, but the example of distilleries is a really good one. The Listoke Distillery is manufacturing and selling hand sanitiser at cost. Not only is this a good thing for society, it also in my view makes business sense. As the header of this post suggests, it is better to be “ticking over” and covering costs than losing money and not covering fixed costs. I would also bet that many of us (and certainly yours truly) will remember these local small businesses that helped us out in these strange times and, hopefully, they will see increased revenues and growth. Meanwhile, with costs covered, at least they have a good chance of surviving.
By the way, I’ve just bought my second bottle of sanitiser – accompanied by a bottle of gin of course.
A Guardian headline in recent days says “Tesla shares soar 40% after analyst says firm’s value could hit $1.3tn“. Similar headlines could be seen in other newspapers. So, the market values Tesla at $1.3 trillion, yet their 2018 10K shows assets valued at around $30 billion, and accumulated losses of $5.3 billion. So, why are these values so different? This is something students of mine often ask. I’ll try to give a simple answer.
The market value is based on expectations for the future, and these drive up the share price – some media sources though suggest the price is being driven by short sellers trying to buy shares to cover losses they may be making as they bet against Tesla shares rising in price. Accounting values are in general based on historic cost – what was paid for something in the past. Also, for example, accounting does not include items which do not have a historic cost – such as the Tesla brand name. Thus, accounting statements do not reflect future plans or values in general. If another business were to buy Tesla, then its actual (market) values would be captured by accounting of course – brand value, goodwill and such things not captured previously. At this purchase point, there is a historic cost.
Yes, there are some whiskies produced in Taiwan, and they are winning some awards and grabbing attention in the whisky world. I wrote an article on The Conversation recently which looks at how Taiwanese whisky producers have some costs and cashflow advantages over other producers. You can read it here. Sláinte
As you may know, there are public and private companies. Public companies can sell shares to members of the public, normally through a broker or exchange, private companies cannot. Both must prepare accounts though, and must also file certain accounting information which in turn becomes available to the public. So what accounting data can Joe Blogs get? The answer is it depends, but I will give you a good idea on this post.
In most European countries there is a central register of all companies – as far as I am aware the US does not have such a register, and the SEC focuses on public companies only. In Ireland and the UK, a small fee via an online portal gets me at least a balance sheet of a company – an abridged version for small companies – and an annual return which shows the directors and shareholders and their details (such as address). To give another example, in Germany I can download a free app called the Bundesanzeiger and search for details of any company – again for smaller companies I can get a summarised balance sheet.
For larger companies, including public a lot more information is available of course. But even with a balance sheet, or more of the company is medium or large, I can obtain quite a good picture of the financial position of a private company, and quite detailed information of directors and shareholders. Such information can be very useful to prospective investors, suppliers, customers and even employees. Why not search for a private company you know and see what you can find.
Ok, so I guess I will start with a caveat – I am not a fan of Elon Musk. He may be a great guy, I have never met him, but as an accountant, I see him as one of those entrepreneurs who may have good business ideas and models but they fail to turn them into profit. Tesla is a good example, and of course, I may eat my words in the future, but the company has yet to make any profitable product in a consistent manner – and they are on the third model of their car!
Looking at the Tesla 10K (which includes the financial statements) at the end of 2017, the accumulated losses are just under $5 billion. Okay, if we look at the balance sheet, the assets exceed liabilities, but some of the assets probably could lose value, or be over-valued, which would wipe any net assets. And okay, I get it that Tesla is breaking a mould, but they are not the only ones trying to make better cars. But, the company is 15 years old this year and still has accumulated losses; and the media reports production problems with the latest model still. And, it’s most recent quarter losses are about $700 million. So, let me ask this, would you invest in a company that cannot make a profit after 15 years? As an accountant, my verdict is no way!
In my daily work as an accounting academic, income across many papers and articles which explore the broader role of accounting in society and out daily lives. Lisa Jack from the University of Portsmouth writes about the role of accounting in the food supply chain. This is a very interesting area, as information on costs and margins is crucial in the food sector. She has just published an article on the recent contamination of eggs in some
European countries – you can read it here. It gives a good overview of how accounting is entwined in this and other food issues, and how it could help.
As you may know, we can use ratio analysis of financial statements to form a view of how a business is doing. One area worth looking at is liquidity and solvency, which we can for example assess using the current ratio or other working capital ratios.
I came across a great example of a “technically” insolvent organisation recently – none less than the professional body I am a member of, CIMA. Below is an extract from their financial statements of 2016 , but first let me briefly explain what insolvency means. Solvency means a business can pay its debts as they fall due, and technically, if current liabilities exceed current assets, a business is insolvent.
If we take a look at the current assets, the total value of current assets is £18,760,000, whereas current liabilities equals £22,564,000. Thus, technically CIMA is insolvent. What makes this example even more interesting is that if we look at the current liabilities, about £13m is deferred income, the subs in advance. These are already included within the cash balance, or the cash has been spent already, so they are not really a liability per se. However, if CIMA were to close tomorrow, it would have to repay these subs to members. So the cash in the bank more or less could cover this, but then if all receivables were paid they would not cover the payables.
Have a look at the full accounts at the link above if you want to see more.
IAG, or the International Airlines Group, is the the parent of Aer Lingus, British Airways and Iberia. In my university, we were lucky enough to have their CEO, Willie Walsh, speak to us before Christmas.
Some things he mentioned are relevant to this blog, and of course interesting. One thing Mr Walsh noted was how only in recent years has the airline sector actually made a return on capital. This must be attributable in some way to a focus on cost by the sector in recent years. The chart below from IATA shows what I mean. As you can see, the cost of capital was higher than the return until 2014.
As my last post indicated, a focus on cost and efficiency has been a feature of the airline sector in recent years. To give another example, Mr Walsh cited an example of using two larger aircraft on a route without a loss in passenger capacity. So fuel, crew and capital cost all decrease in such a scenario. In addition, it freed up a slot at London’s Heathrow airport, which can then be used to generate more revenues.
Probably my favourite (spectator) sport is motor cycle road-racing. There aren’t too many places it still happens – doing 180mph on public roads is not for everyone – but thankfully it still happens here in Ireland, the Isle of Man (IOM) and a few other places.
The IOM TT is probably the pinnacle of road-racing – it’s two weeks of fund each June. imagine my delight when I read an article featuring news on the 2016 TT and creative accounting! The article notes the number of TT visitors for 2016 to be similar to 2015 – based on data from the IOM government. The article also suggested a revenue of £738 per visitor for the economy, based on this same data. In the comments beneath the article, the fun starts.
One comment notes:
“This year’s TT races in June brought a £4.1 million benefit to the island’s exchequer, according to government figures just released.” OK, so that is the claimed revenue, now let’s see the total costs. And by total, I mean the total cost to the island not just the cost of TT preparations. How much for a fatality or serious injury involving medevac? How much for the road closures and effects on businesses as well as the public? These are real costs and the list goes on.
I note the total expenditure of £738 pp is not broken down into for example travel costs and monies spent on island. Therefore that figure is meaningless If the figures of £31.3M, £22.5M and £4.1M are based on the £738pp they are also meaningless. Creative accounting it is for sure. In addition, if the government can come up with a figure for the benefit to the island they must be in possession of all costs, such as DOI, medical, policing, helicopters etc. So why do they never produce such figures?
These two sharp commentators highlight many things -the subjective major of accounting, where costs and revenues are attributed, and what are the relevant costs, for example. I’ll be using this example in my teaching at some future point.
In recent years many operations – both business and public sector – have been closed or reduced in capacity to save costs. Closing an operation is one of the topics I often teach too. When I teach, the basic message is to focus on the fixed costs, and how much can be reduced or eliminated. Of course, some labour costs are increasingly seen as fixed – and this may be a more certain feature in the public sector.There may also be some hidden or unforeseen costs, which are often not included in the analysis. Let me give you two recent examples, both of which are from the public sector.
In Ireland, the government closed down 139 Garda (police) stations due to economic woes. Most of these closures were in rural areas. The total annual cost saving is estimated at just over €500,000 – see here. This is likely due to the fact that only the only savings were operating costs of the stations e.g. light and heat were the only real costs saved. Police staff and equipment simply moved to another station – where costs may have been incurred to accommodate them. There is a big hidden cost though, which is increased rural crime. While there was probably no money value on this cost in any cost estimates prepared, I’d be quite sure it is higher than closing stations. Recently, the decision to close has been reversed.
A second example comes from Lambeth council in London who closed two libraries – see here . According to a report in the Guardian, the daily security cost is higher than the cost of keeping the libraries open. There seems to have been some protests against the closure of one library in particular, which drove up the costs. This unforeseen cost, if included in the closure decision might have changed things.
My colleague Michael Farrell has written a nice post explaining the dodgy accounting transactions at Anglo Irish Bank – the bank that was a big part of the Irish financial crisis in recent years.