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.
On a recent research project I read an article from 1914 which was written by an “old” accountant of the time. On testing accounting students knowledge through examinations (s)he notes “we see interesting problems set out in symmetry and order”. This made me think about what has changed today.
Indeed we still use examinations in university and in professional bodies. They are a good tool to test knowledge, and increasingly examinations draw on methods such as case scenarios which are less structured in an effort to imitate real life scenarios. However, no matter what we do as teachers, we cannot replicate the real world. This is of course where professional development and on the job training come in. I do hope we at least provide the basic knowledge to help students hit the ground running when they start their careers. We can only improve the value of this basic knowledge by trying to get students to use their knowledge in an unstructured way. In an examination scenario, this means we need to use fresh ideas and new ways to ask standard material – this can be tricky sometimes, but it helps both students and us teachers to apply ourselves in a more real world fashion.
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.
The question of accounting for spare parts for assets (i.e. plant and equipment) is one which needs some judgement on the part of an accountant. Before outlining some options, let me describe one experience I had. I worked for a global paper company in the past and the policy to deal with such spares was as follows:
- spares bought with machinery were capitalised as items of plant/equipment and depreciated with the asset
- all spares bought at other times were treated as inventory.
Then, the company merged with another and they had a different policy in that only spares valued over $1000 per unit were inventory, all others were expense. I can recall the month this policy changed, the accounts had a few hundred thousand dollars extra expenses as the lower value inventory items were written off to the income statement.
In IFRS terms, there may be two standards at play, IAS 2 on inventories and IAS 16 on Plant, Property & Equipment. So how is it decided whether a spare part is inventory or treated as an item of PPE? The general consensus, although not specifically stated in any IFRS, is to treat higher value items as an asset and lower value items as inventories. If an asset, then the question arises if the spare should be depreciated. There is a good logical argument that a spare should not be depreciated until it is put in use, so it remains on the books at cost value with adjustment for any impairment. Whatever is chosen, the accounting policy probably should disclosed if the value of spares is material – and in large manufacturing concerns it can be.
Just to complicate things further, from my experience, maintenance staff may still want to have an inventory of some low value, but critical spares even if expensed. I have seen SAP being used to track the quantity of spares held, but with no value attached (as they have been expensed). A good example might be a control panel for a machine. It may be for example a small touch screen worth $300, and expensed in the accounts. But the machine cannot work without it, so it is good to know if a spare is in stock and where it is – the latter being important when perhaps another plant in the group has a spare on hand.
Finally, here is a nice tutorial on accounting for spares.
Working capital is defined as current assets less current liabilities. Current assets are inventory, receivables and cash, while current liabilities are amounts owed to suppliers, bank overdraft and other short term liabilities such as taxes due.
Managing working capital is very important. Tie up too much money in inventory and the business is in trouble. A recent report by PWC suggests companies are still not managing working capital as best they can. Read about it and some suggestions to improve working capital here.
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%!
You may know the gross profit margin ratio, which is:
Gross Profit x 100
Gross profit is: Sales – Cost of Sales
Cost of Sales = Opening inventory + Purchases/cost of production – Closing Inventory.
In this short post I would just like to share some of my experiences on the versatility of this simple ratio. If we look at the elements of the ratio, it is easy to see that if each element remain stable, the answer should also be stable. So for example, if I buy something for €40, sell it for €100, then my GP margin is 60%. If my sales price or purchase price changes, then the GP margin changes. Then, if we think about inventory levels, if these fluctuate the GP margin changes too. Taking all this together, it’s easy enough to see how any business typically knows what its GP margin should be. Thus, if it varies considerably, there may be something wrong.
Here are two things I know the GP margin is used for. One, from my own experience, is in pubs/bars. Most pubs/bars are susceptible to fraud and controls typically put in place by owners. One such control is monthly stock-takes and monthly accounts. A fall in the GP margin could indicate “lost” stock or unrecorded cash receipts – which further controls may reveal. Another use is to spot inflated revenues. Businesses may want to make their profits look better and thus do things like invoice for goods early, before the end of a financial year. These good may not even be bought/made yet. Thus, the GP margin may be lower. Again further investigation is needed to find the issue.
There may of course be more simple reasons for changes in the GP margin – costs and sales prices may simply change and affect the ratio. But once these have been ruled out, it is a useful indicator.
Here is a great little blog post I came across a few months ago. It’s a bit of fun, and worth a read.
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
A recent quote from Pope Francis to the World Congress of Accountants captures the broader role of accounting quite well:
” everyone, especially those who practise a profession which deals with the proper functioning of a country’s economic life, is asked to play a positive, constructive role in performing their daily work, knowing that behind every file, there is a story, there are faces.”
This quote reminds us that behind the numbers are real jobs, real people and real effects. It may be easy to forget this as you trawl over a ledger audit trail or provide information to managers, but reminding ourselves of the broad reach of our accounting numbers can only be a good thing.
The full text the address by Pope Francis can be found here.
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.
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.
One thing really annoys me about how the media reports company performance – they only ever give % increases or decreases in sales or profit typically.
If you have ever studied accounting you probably learned about ratios analysis, and how just looking at absolute numbers ( like sales or profit ) can give a false picture. Here’s a recent example from the Irish Times to illustrate what I mean.
According to the Irish Times (see here :
“Irish-owned book and stationery retailer Eason & Son has recorded a net profit after tax of €2.3 million in its financial year to January 2014, compared with €2.6 million the previous year. Eason Group revenues, however, were down 7.1 per cent to €227.4 million, in what the company called a “challenging year”.”
All the above is true, but if we do a quick calculation, profit as a % of sales ( profit margin ) is pretty much the same from one year to another. So despite a 7% drop in sales, costs must also have been well managed to maintain a stable profit margin. I appreciate the media try to keep these reports simple for the general public, but a little more depth would be very useful.
Sometimes a business does not keep (or have) proper records. Most countries require a business to keep accounting records by law, so in my experience the only time a business does not have records is when there is something like a fire, or records are lost or destroyed. When this happens, there are several techniques which can be used to help “build” a set of accounts. Here is a nice article from CPA Ireland which details some of these.