The Health Service Executive (HSE) is responsible for Ireland’s public health service. It has been the subject to criticism over the years for being inefficient and it is one of the largest items of public expenditure.
Thankfully, I have not been a frequent user of HSE services – that is, I have been generally healthy. My son had a mild concussion recently, so we had to attend the A &E department in our local hospital. On attending A & E, every patient is charged €100. The idea of this fee is two-fold 1) to stop the use of A & E by people with non-urgent issues and 2) to help reduce budgetary cost pressures. Both of these are fine in my view.
So, good law-abiding citizens as we are, we asked to pay as we entered. We were told “come back when you leave”. So we did, and were told “we’ll post the invoice”. So now, reflecting on this as an accountant, that’s two opportunities missed to collect payment. Then we get the invoice. There is no bank account details on it, and I cannot pay online. I have to call a number which was always busy. I could pay at a Post Office – fine if I am not working or have one close to work – I do work and I don’t have one close. Eventually we paid! If I do a quick media search I can find one hospital owed €600,000, and some reports from a few years back suggest the HSE are owed €200m . Apparently, people who do not pay are pursued, but how much does this cost? A lot more than the amount collected perhaps, which is not good for a cost stretched organisation.
To me, the process of payment should be much easier. Twice we asked at the hospital. I did not check if they had a credit card machine there, but why would they not. Why can I not pay online or to a bank account, or by PayPal? I shared my story with some friends, and they tell me some hospitals accept online payment. This made me even more annoyed, not even a common system! The lesson here is, and it applies to all businesses and organisations, you have to collect monies owed. The first thing then is to make it easy to pay, and to me the HSE fails badly in this regard.
I don’t not normally do political views and similar on my blog, but read this article by Bloomberg which makes for very poor reading on accountants, auditors and bankers. And here’s the political thing, Germany’s political elite have been scorning Ireland and other countries in Europe about things like tax policy. After reading the above article you might be thinking about the old saying on throwing stones in a glasshouse.
In recent years, I have become interested in the broader role and use of accounting in society. In particular, accounting for water has caught my eye and in Ireland it’s been great fun in the past two years or so.
As you may know, one of the things we need in accounting is measurement. In business accounting, it’s relatively easy, as the unit of measurement is rather simple – it’s the unit of currency normally. Currencies are broken into various units – euro and cent for example – and we can use the decimal system easily communicate and measure larger numbers.
In accounting for water, the measurement unit is normally cubic metres, or 1000 litres. To measure (or account) for our water usage, we need a measurement device – a meter. Once a meter is in place, we can see how much water we use and take measures to reduce it if necessary – as water is a precious resource.
In Ireland, there has been much debate about billing for water. A recent (December 2016) expert commission report on domestic water billing has within its remit to explore if metering should occur. This, in my view, was/is a completely daft request. The report itself is full of statistics on water usage – none of which are possible with a meter. For example, it suggests usage on average of 111 litres per person per day or 20.8 cubic metres per person per year. In my own house, we have used on average 11 cubic metres per month for 4 people. Annually this is 33 cubic meters, so we are quite above average. And like any management accounting scenario, now that I have some information (on water usage) I can now take corrective action, or pay extra for my somewhat excessive usage. The latter is the subject of much debate in Ireland of course.
I can remember my time working in a manufacturing company as a financial controller and later a systems manager like it was yesterday. One of the great experiences I had was working with and configuring SAP.
One thing it changed in the company was the Accounts Payable (AP) process. My company at that time was quite good at ensuring only genuine suppliers were created. But that’s been newly 15 years ago now and I know the AP processes have become even more automated.
So this article in the Journal of Accountancy really interested me. It seems proper AP controls evade some companies still, but when managed well add to the bottom line. Have a read of the full article
Okay, the title is a cliche…but in business size (or scale) can mean a lot. Take aircraft for example. An article in the Irish Times reveals how smaller planes like the Boeing 737 Max and the Airbus 320neo are now more fuel efficient and capable of crossing the Atlantic. These smaller planes are not only more fuel efficient, but have less crew and other lower running costs. They can thus offer lower fares than the same or similar flights on larger and more expensive aircraft. According to the article, many airlines from the more western parts of Europe are purchasing such aircraft, with an eye to serving smaller US airports, which are also cheaper to land at.
So, even with these smaller aircraft, it seems airlines will be able to offer cost efficient routes, for both passengers and their bottom line.
I read a nice article in the Financial Times recently on the cost of buying a vineyard. The article is investment focused, but mentions that given costs of production, wine prices and annual sales in bottles, the investment will breakeven in a few years – meaning the investment is recouped. If you have studied management accounting, you’ll be aware this not breakeven in the way you many have learned it – fixed cost/contribution per unit. It is not very different though. In essence, the investment is regarded as a fixed cost, with the contribution per unit being the annual contribution which can be made from sales of wine in a year. It’s not a perfect measure, but a good enough rule of thumb to help make an investment decision.
This post was prompted by a comment from a reader. The question was where do I show the customs duty in an income statement. If we are referring to a published income statement, the answer is it is not shown. And this made me think of the items that are not visible on a published income statement. Of course, such items may be visible/shown on an internal income statement within a business.
Let me use the customs duty as an example. If the duty is paid on items of raw material/items purchased for re-sale, the duty will be included as part of the cost/expense. On internal income statements, it probably will not be shown separately, but may have its own ledger account. On a published income statement, it will be included in cost of sales.
There are many other items which we would typically not see on an income statement, even an internal one. For example, discounts are likely to be netted off against the relevant expense; or sales of waste product against sales. However, the materiality concept may kick in, if the amount is large (material) enough to merit separate disclosure. Even if material, such items will not be seen on the income statement, but in a note.
On July 14th last, it was reported on the BBC website that the total cost to BP of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill back in 2010 was totalling $61.6 billion – quite an amount. If you look back at the media websites/newspapers over the years you will see the amount rising over time.
Just out of curiosity, I had a look at the most recent financial statements of BP to see what they include on this. Two things came to mind before I looked at the accounts 1) the amounts involved here are material and 2) it spans many reporting periods, so IAS 10 Events after the Reporting Period would probably kick in. Looking at the accounts to 31.12.2015, they contain a separate note which itemises the events of the event on each of the three financial statements. You can see the accounts here – look at note 2. It is quite detailed and I do like how they have shown the effects, and the note is quite detailed. It is not very often such significant events occur, and as far as I can see BP have done a good job on this note. It certainly should provide an investor with enough information to decide whether to invest in the company or not – a key criteria of what financial statements should do.
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.
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.
Have you ever noticed how some Eco items cost more than, shall we call them traditional items? For example, eco building materials like some insulations are much more costly than the traditional materials. Or more efficient appliances such as heating boilers cost more. What bugs me a little is, if our goal to is to reduce energy consumption, reduce CO2 or live more sustainably, then why are many things that could helps us so costly?
Two reasons come to mind as a management accountant. First, there may have been some capital costs incurred by manufacturers to produce newer and more sustainable products, which are included in the price. These costs may decrease over time as economies of scale creep in. A second reason is that although the costs may be higher, there may be savings to take into account. For example, an certain insulation maybe be twice the cost, but it can seriously reduce your heating bills over the several decades.
You have probably heard about the amount of fruit and vegetables wasted in the food supply chain. This waste “occurs” for three main reasons. First, in less developed countries, poor transport and storage can result in waste. This also happens in larger developed countries, where distances mean fruit/veg cannot survive the trip. Second, the exacting standards imposed by retailers as to the size and shape of fresh fruit and vegetables causes growers to simply dump large quantities each year. Third, end consumers throw away perfectly good food.
Personally, I grow some fruit in a small suburban garden. We never but jam, as I make enough for the household for the whole year. We have 2-3 months worth of pears and apples, and some years the “leftover” fruit become wine – blackcurrant wine is quite nice. So, from a small say 10m2 plot, I can do all this and have zero waste. On a commercial scale, things are different. The waste is immorally high, primarily due to the exacting standards of retailers. I can tell you that the apples and pears I grow may be all shapes and sizes, but they taste so much better than anything I can buy in the supermarket – and my neighbours all agree.
To give a snapshot of how much perfectly good fruit and vegetables we waste each year as a race, National Geographic (March 2016) provides some stark numbers. In total, 53% of fruit and vegetables never makes it to the market – 20% is lost at the farm due mainly to exacting standards, 19% is uneaten and discarded at home, 3% lost in transit/storage, 2% lost in processing (canning/baking) and 9% discarded by wholesales and retailers. Add to this the resources used to harvest and prepare what is wasted – 70 times the oil lost in Deep Water Horizon and enough water to fill the Volga, and that’s just one year in the US alone. To add another number, the annual total food waste (all foods) could feed 2 billion people.
From these stark numbers, what can (management) accountants do? Recently, some documentaries on British TV featured vegetable growers saying the loose perhaps £100,000 per month worth of vegetables – assuming it could be sold at market price. Nowhere is this accounted for, not in their accounts, in supermarket accounts, in our national accounts (GDP). What if these accounts included the cost of waste? I’m sure if they did, we would all stand up and take notice.
The above headline appeared in an article in The Times recently. There is something fundamentally incorrect in what it says, which I detail below. Let me say first that I am bashing the article author or the paper, as most papers do such things when covering firm performance.
So what is wrong with above statement? Simply, it is the application of the accruals concept in accounting. Under this concept, revenues and expenses are matched, and when cash is received/paid is not relevant – at least in the calculation of profit.
Here is a simple example. Let’s assume a business sells goods for $1,000 cash but has not paid the supplier. The goods cost $600. The profit on this is $400. If the supplier is never paid, or is paid in 10 days, the profit will not change.
While the article is incorrect in terms of the title, it’s message is solid – that you can benefit by not paying people. In the simple example above, the business has $1000 in the bank.
To this audience I ask two questions
- do you understand short-term versus long-term? If you do, which applies to your decision-making?
- are there any trained management accountants working in banks? I know there are, so read below if you are one of them.
While driving back from Cork recently, I heard a decent sounding lady with six kids telling a story about how a bank was repossessing the house her family rented – it was the Joe Duffy show on RTE Radio 1. The landlord could not afford the loan repayments it seemed and the bank wanted to sell the house. The family worked, and had sufficient income to pay rent into the future. The husband worked in a state-job, so as secure as you could get. She tried to communicate with the bank, but got a “computer says no” type response from the bank. To me, and I am just a management accountant, not a banking expert I could not see the logic in selling the house. Something instinctively told me taking a longer term view is a better choice.
Based on the information she gave during the radio show, when I reach my home I opened an Excel sheet. I checked the rent the lady might be paying – from daft.ie – and then I started to use the simple PMT function in Excel. I made assumptions that the landlord stopped paying the bank loan based on the original house value in 2010; that the bank would allow the lady to take over the mortgage at the present market value of the house and at the present interest rate. I did not adjust for the time value of money. You can see all my workings at this link:
The total time to do the above calculations was about 20 mins. I admit, Excel is not perfect, and I do not adjust for the time value of money – I don’t think it will make things vastly different. To keep it short, if the bank allowed the lady to take over the house as described above, they would gain to the tune of just under €86,000. Based on my simple calculations, the lady could afford to pay this. So, taking a longer term view, the bank (and by definition it’s shareholders) would benefit compared to ditching the house now.
Some further points on costs. I ignore legal costs, as the bank would have to suffer legal costs on either a sale or re-mortgage. But there is a bigger elephant in the room on costs. The lady would be homeless, someone would have to pay this cost – directly or indirectly, and ultimately the state. If I extrapolate the social costs, what is the family (who seemed decent) became homeless, the family fabric was disturbed and the kids turn to crime in the future. How much would this cost in money terms ?
So back to my questions. The scenario I describe above is being repeat all across Ireland. As a person, and an accountant this annoys me. The view of banks seems to be short-term only, driven by profit only. Now don’t get me wrong, profit is good, it creates jobs and investment. But we must not view profit from a short-term perspective. So, to the bankers, give me an answer to the above questions. If you are a trained management accountant, you should be thinking long-term, and if not, don’t think you cannot fail by taking short-term views. As you know banks have failed, as the leading image here should remind you.