Some recent media coverage of problems in the Irish charity sector has been quite detailed. In one case, a charity founder was clearly exerting a lot of control and taking money for personal use. In another, a group of people on social media demanded detailed accounting and controls in a charity with only a single permanent staff member.
In both cases, and there seems to be a lack of accountability as regards to how money was spent. The first case was to me simply fraud, but the second case is probably more typical of the issues faced by smaller charities in Ireland and other countries. That charities be held accountable for what they spend if of course right and proper, but to do so they require accounting and contol systems. These systems do not come free of charge. For example, even to have one qualified accountant in a charity would cost in the region of €70000 per annum. This may a considerable portion of the income of a smallef charity and herein lies the conundrum – the public want accountantability, but they also want administration costs to be minimised. What’s the answer to this conundrum? Well, I am not sure, gut the answer may lie in simple economies of scale – that is, perhaps there are too many smaller charities who could consolidate. Or possible governments or some regulatory agency could provide shared service type accounting arrangements for charities.
As you are probably aware, the United Kingdom (UK) is leaving the European Union. This will have many effects on business, and in Ireland we are likely to experience the effect quite early on due to our close business ties.
Will any effects on business be revealed in the accounts of Irish (or other) businesses? The simple answer is yes, as if a company has close business ties with the UK then there is very likely to be a contingent liability or provision in the accounts. IAS 37 defines a contingent liability as:
- a possible obligation depending on whether some uncertain future event occurs, or
- a present obligation but payment is not probable or the amount cannot be measured reliably
As noted in an article in The Sunday Business Post, the outcome of Brexit is as of now uncertain, and looking at the definition of a contingent liability above, it would seem the financial statements of companies may have contingent liabilities (or even contingent assets) disclosed for some years to come. Only time will tell.
Regulation of charities in Ireland is not as good as it could be – we have some legislation waiting to be enacted since 2009 as far as I know. But laws cannot prevent what happens within an organisation from happening; they can only penalise after the event.
So what bugs me? Well, the title of this post really – it is something I picked up from the print media in recent weeks. I am sure I have said somewhere on this blog that accounting is the language of business, so what about accounting for charities? My own opinion is that charities must have proper accounting, and there are accounting standards already in place for charities. But I often wonder should we be careful and not allow charities to become too much like a business? For example, we should be using accounting in charities to drive efficiencies, not necessarily monitor revenue and costs like in a business. Nor should we be using accounting just to get funding for a charity. In short, what I am trying to say is that we need to be careful and try to not let accounting (and other commercial sector notions) detract from what a charity should be.
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.
Former executives from Anglo Irish Bank (“Anglo”) and Irish Life and Permanent (“ILP”) are alleged to have conspired to mislead investors by setting up a €7.2bn circular transaction scheme to bolster Anglo’s balance sheet in 2008.
The simplified debits and credits (from Anglo’s perspective) for the “circular transaction” as it’s being called are as follows:
1) Amount put on deposit with Anglo by ILP:
Dr Cash €7.2bn
Cr Customer Deposits €7.2bn (shown as a liability)
2) Amount “lent” to ILP by Anglo:
Dr Loans and Advances to Banks €7.2bn (shown as an asset)
Cr Cash €7.2bn
Per the above, the transaction is cash neutral, so what’s the big deal? The issue is that the €7.2bn recorded as a customer deposit with the bank would be (and was) incorrectly interpreted by the bank’s wider stakeholders as a measure of customer confidence in the bank.
So where do the accounting rules stand on…
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Ryanair made a profit of €865 million in 2014. The Irish Times reports this figure and also notes “operating profits rose 65 per cent to €1 billion from €658 million”. Great news for Ryanair. The main reasons for increased profit seem to be a combination of lower fuel costs and increased passenger numbers. What sort of annoys me about such media reports – and all media seem to do this, not just the Irish Times – is that such reporting of numbers does not tell the full story.
Let’s take a brief look at more detail. In this example from Ryanair (or any company) on profits, we also need to consider the level of investment in assets. Forgetting about accounting for a moment, it is logical to think that if Ryanair for example acquired more aircraft, then it should be able to generate more profits due to increased passenger revenue. But, if we just make a statement like “profits rose by 65%”, this does not reveal the underlying assets.
The same Irish Times article reports that net assets (assets less liabilities) did in fact rise from €3.3 billion to €4 billion in the year. If we do a simple return on assets calculation (using operating profits), then for 2013 the return is 658/3300 = 19.9% and for 2014 it is 1000/4000, or 25%. This is a year on year increase in the return on assets of about 26%. This is a long way off the 65% reported increase in operating profit, and a lot more meaningful as it reflects the net assets (or capital) used. It is still a great improvement, but perhaps not so sensational a 65%!
We have probably all heard of the digital currency Bitcoin – there are some others but Bitcoin is the best known I think. I read a nice article on the Bitcoin magazine website recently which reminded me of the basic things us accountants need to consider if dealing in foreign currency or if a new currency comes along – it is not that long ago since the Euro came our way.
The article summarises well the three steps I experienced when operationalising the Euro more than a decade ago now. Like Bitcoin, the Euro was for me then a non-physical currency to begin with. The first “step” with the Euro and actually happening now with Bitcoin is use as a payment method. With the Euro, we had the ECU as a payment method first. In this case, the accounting entry is the same as any other payment method – such as a credit card or PayPal – all amounts are in local currency. Step 2 would be to treat Bitcoin as a foreign currency. In my experience this typically happens when volumes of payments to/from customers/suppliers become larger. For example, many Irish SME treat GBP as a foreign currency in their accounting systems, but treat the USD more like a payment method. As the articles notes, if Bitcoin is treated as a foreign currency then exchange gains and losses need to be accounted for. Step 3 is adoption as a base currency. This may not happen of course, only time will tell. Let’s assume it does happen, then the accounting system works pretty much the same as in step 2. The would also be some work in translating assets and liabilities to the new currency. With the Euro this was relatively simple as fixed exchange rates were agreed and then it was matter of running a routine within the accounting software to do the calculations.
As the article suggests, more businesses are accepting Bitcoin (as its stabilises in value) and thus are at step 1.
As you may know, profits at Apple for Q4, 2014 were some $18billion. This is reportedly the largest quarterly profit in history.
One of the things accountants often do is use ratios to compare businesses from one year to another and with other businesses. With such a large profit at Apple, I’d begin to think that any comparisons might not be of great value. So is there any way we could our such a number is perspective. Certainly Apple could probably clear all Irish sovereign debt with there cash pile, but here is an interesting presentation from the BBC
Image from Tesco.ie
A few weeks ago, a news story broke about an accounting scandal at Tesco – see here for example.
So how can this happen? It’s very simple actually. Now, we don’t know if it’s an error or something deliberate, but from an accounting view the entries in the books are the same.
When I was in college 20 years ago, one of our accounting lecturers asked is how would we account for this “hello money” as he called it. Within a decade I was calculating and accounting for what were termed “long term agreements” in my role.
For the likes of Tesco, the amount involved are large and I would guess they account for hello money as a separate income stream – although it’s not shown in the published accounts. Another way would be to reduce purchase cost, but this would probably be for smaller amounts. But how can Tesco make such an error you ask? Simple, just ” over accrue”. This means recording future hello monies now. Of course, I have no idea this is what actually happened, but it does show how easy errors or manipulation can happen by using the good old accruals concept.
McKinsey have a nice web article which highlights the problems with GAAP reporting versus the needs of investors and analysts. The kernel of their article is that financial statements, with some small adjustments, could save investors a lot of re-working of figures. They provide the following example:
Two things come to my mind. First, in my first real management accounting job almost 20 years ago now, we prepared an income statement which was not too far away from the one on the right above. And, most management accounting courses would teach students to draw up some kind so similar profit statement – at least separating direct and indirect costs.
Second, the articles does not mention XBRL at all. With tagged data from GAAP financial statements, XBRL could re-draw financial statements in any format. I am not saying all XBRL tags are there to do what McKinsey suggest, but it is certainly possible technically.
You can read the full article at the link below. It is worth a read.
In July this year (2013), I read an interesting brief news report about a speed van operator in Ireland. Yes, we all hate these guys, but the article made me realise this seems like a good business to be in – even if you are hated by motorists. According to the article, the GoSafe consortium makes a profit of almost €50,000 per week or €2.5m per year. It has almost €11m debt and is contracted to provide 6,000 hours per month to the Irish state. The article notes that at least one motorist per hour is caught speeding. I don’t know the ins and outs of the contract, but if the company makes a profit of €2.5m annually, even if it does pay out some dividends, the debt owing could be paid down quickly it would seem. The management accountant in me would really like to know what is the breakeven number of speeding motorists per day! You can read more at this link: http://www.rte.ie/news/2013/0720/463662-speed-vans/
I have written a few posts previously with infographics. I like them. They convey a message in an easy to understand way. Of course, as a management accountant, I would say they may also include some really useful information to help managers (and others) make decisions.
Recently, Dr Stephen Jollands from Exeter sent me this one. It is so clear and it’s message is direct and simple – despite the many complexities within renewables and the environment etc.
Internal controls and fraud are not really an area that I write a lot on. Just before Christmas I read this article from CIMA about fraud at Japanese firm Olympus. It includes interviews with Michael Woodward, who was at the heart of putting things right. The are a lot of issues in the article and it is worth a read.