What is Financial Window Dressing?

What is Financial Window Dressing?

Financial managers can do certain things to increase or decrease net income that's recorded in the year. This is called profit smoothing, income smoothing or just plain old window dressing. This isn't the same as fraud, or cooking the books.

Most profit smoothing involves pushing some amount of revenue and/or expenses into other years than they would normally be recorded. A common technique for profit smoothing is to delay normal maintenance and repairs. This is referred to as deferred maintenance. Many routine and recurring maintenance costs required for autos, trucks, machines, equipment and buildings can be delayed, or deferred until later.

A business that spends a significant amount of money for employee training and development may delay these programs until the next year so the expense in the current year is lower.

A company can cut back on its current year's outlays for market research and product development.

A business can ease up on its rules regarding when slow-paying customers are written off to expense as bad debts or uncollectible accounts receivable. The business can put off recording some of its bad debts expense until the next reporting year.

What is Financial Window Dressing?

A fixed asset that is not being actively used may have very little current or future value to a business. Instead of writing off the un-depreciated cost of the impaired asset as a loss in the current year, the business might delay the write-off until the next year.

You can see how manipulating the timing of certain expenses can make an impact on net income. This isn't illegal although companies can go too far in massaging the numbers so that its financial statements are misleading.

For the most part though, profit smoothing isn't much more than robbing Peter to pay Paul. Accountants refer to these as compensatory effects. The effects next year offset and cancel out the effects in the current year. Less expense this year is balanced by more expense the next year.
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Profit and Loss Accounts

Profit and Loss Accounts

It might seem like a no-brainer to define just exactly what profit and loss are. But of course these have definitions like everything else. Profit can be called different things, for a start. It's sometimes called net income or net earnings. Businesses that sell products and services generate profit from the sales of those products or services and from controlling the attendant costs of running the business.

Profit can also be referred to as Return on Investment, or ROI. While some definitions limit ROI to profit on investments in such securities as stocks or bonds, many companies use this term to refer to short-term and long-term business results. Profit is also sometimes called taxable income.

It's the job of the accounting and finance professionals to assess the profits and losses of a company. They have to know what created both and what the results of both sides of the business equation are. They determine what the net worth of a company is. Net worth is the resulting dollar amount from deducting a company's liabilities from its assets. In a privately held company, this is also called owner's equity, since anything that's left over after all the bills are paid, to put it simply, belongs to the owners.
Profit and Loss Accounts
In a publicly held company, this profit is returned to the shareholders in the form of dividends. In other words, all liabilities have the first claim on any money the company makes. Anything that's left over is profit. It's not derived from one element or another. Net worth is determined after all the liabilities are deducted from all the assets, including cash and property. 

Showing a profit, or a positive figure on the balance sheet, is of course the aim of every business. It's what our economy and society are built on. It doesn't always work out that way. Economic trends and consumer behaviors change and it's not always possible to predict these and what income they'll have on a company's performance.
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Accounting and Bookkeeping

Accounting and Bookkeeping

So what goes on the accounting and bookkeeping departments? What do these people do on a daily basis?

Well, one thing they do that's terribly important to everyone working there is Payroll. All the salaries and taxes earned and paid by every employee every pay period have to be recorded. The payroll department has to ensure that the appropriate federal, state and local taxes are being deducted.

The pay stub attached to your paycheck records these taxes. They usually include income tax, social security taxes pous employment taxes that have to be paid to federal and state government. Other deductions include personal ones, such as for retirement, vacation, sick pay or medical benefits. It's a critical function. Some companies have their own payroll departments; others outsource it to specialists.

The accounting department receives and records any payments or cash received from customers or clients of the business or service. The accounting department has to make sure that the money is sourced accurately and deposited in the appropriate accounts. They also manage where the money goes; how much of it is kept on-hand for areas such as payroll, or how much of it goes out to pay what the company owes its banks, vendors and other obligations. Some should also be invested.

The other side of the receivables business is the payables area, or cash disbursements. A company writes a lot of checks during the course of year to pay for purchases, supplies, salaries, taxes, loans and services. The accounting department prepares all these checks and records to whom they were disbursed, how much and for what.

Accounting departments also keep track of purchase orders placed for inventory, such as products that will be sold to customers or clients. They also keep track of assets such as a business's property and equipment. This can include the office building, furniture, computers, even the smallest items such as pencils and pens.
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Accounting Principles

Accounting Principles

If everyone involved in the process of accounting followed their own system, or no system at all, there's be no way to truly tell whether a company was profitable or not. Most companies follow what are called generally accepted accounting principles or GAAP, and there are huge tomes in libraries and bookstores devoted to just this one topic. Unless a company states otherwise, anyone reading a financial statement can make the assumption that company has used GAAP.

If GAAP are not the principles used for preparing financial statements, then a business needs to make clear which other form of accounting they're used and are bound to avoid using titles in its financial statements that could mislead the person examining it.

GAAP are the gold standard for preparing financial statement. Not disclosing that it has used principles other than GAAP makes a company legally liable for any misleading or misunderstood data. These principles have been fine-tuned over decades and have effectively governed accounting methods and the financial reporting systems of businesses. Different principles have been established for different types of business entities, such for-profit and not-for-profit companies, governments and other enterprises.

GAAP are not cut and dried, however. They're guidelines and as such are often open to interpretation. Estimates have to be made at times, and they require good faith efforts towards accuracy. You've surely heard the phrase "creative accounting" and this is when a company pushes the envelope a little (or a lot) to make their business look more profitable than it might actually be.

This is also called massaging the numbers. This can get out of control and quickly turn into accounting fraud, which is also called cooking the books. The results of these practices can be devastating and ruin hundreds and thousands of lives, as in the cases of Enron, Rite Aid and others.
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Basic Accounting Principles

Basic Accounting Principles

Accounting has been defined as, by Professor of Accounting at the University of Michigan William A Paton as having one basic function: "facilitating the administration of economic activity. This function has two closely related phases: 1) measuring and arraying economic data; and 2) communicating the results of this process to interested parties."

As an example, a company's accountants periodically measure the profit and loss for a month, a quarter or a fiscal year and publish these results in a statement of profit and loss that's called an income statement.  These statements include elements such as accounts receivable (what's owed to the company) and accounts payable (what the company owes). It can also get pretty complicated with subjects like retained earnings and accelerated depreciation. This at the higher levels of accounting and in the organization.

Much of accounting though, is also concerned with basic bookkeeping. This is the process that records every transaction; every bill paid, every dime owed, every dollar and cent spent and accumulated.

But the owners of the company, which can be individual owners or millions of shareholders are most concerned with the summaries of these transactions, contained in the financial statement. The financial statement summarizes a company's assets. A value of an asset is what it cost when it was first acquired. The financial statement also records what the sources of the assets were. Some assets are in the form of loans that have to be paid back. Profits are also an asset of the business.

In what's called double-entry bookkeeping, the liabilities are also summarized. Obviously, a company wants to show a higher amount of assets to offset the liabilities and show a profit. The management of these two elements is the essence of accounting.

There is a system for doing this; not every company or individual can devise their own systems for accounting; the result would be chaos!
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What Is Accounting Anyway?

What Is Accounting Anyway?

Anyone who's worked in an office at some point or another has had to go to accounting. They're the people who pay and send out the bills that keep the business running. They do a lot more than that, though. Sometimes referred to as "bean counters" they also keep their eye on profits, costs and losses. Unless you're running your own business and acting as your own accountant, you'd have no way of knowing just how profitable - or not - your business is without some form of accounting.

No matter what business you're in, even if all you do is balance a checkbook, that's still accounting. It's part of even a kid's life. Saving an allowance, spending it all at once - these are accounting principles.

What are some other businesses where accounting is critical? Well, farmers need to follow careful accounting procedures. Many of them run their farms year to year by taking loans to plant the crops. If it's a good year, a profitable one, then they can pay off their loan; if not, they might have to carry the loan over, and accrue more interest charges.

Every business and every individual needs to have some kind of accounting system in their lives. Otherwise, the finances can get away from them, they don't know what they've spent, or whether they can expect a profit or a loss from their business. Staying on top of accounting, whether it's for a multi-billion dollar business or for a personal checking account is a necessary activity on a daily basis if you're smart. Not doing so can mean anything from a bounced check or posting a loss to a company's shareholders. Both scenarios can be equally devastating.

Accounting is basically information, and this information is published periodically in business as a profit and loss statement, or an income statement.
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