What is Accounting
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What Is Accounting?

Accounting is a body of principles and conventions as well as an established general process for capturing financial information related to an entity’s resources and their use in meeting the entity’s goals. Accounting services is a business function that provides information of value to all operating units and to other service functions, such as the headquarters offices of a large corporation.

Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) No single source provides principles for handling all transactions and events. Over time, conventional rules have developed that continue to be relevant. Additionally, groups have been authorized to establish accounting standards. The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) assumed responsibility for accounting standards and principles in 1973. It is authorized to amend existing rules and establish new ones. In 1992, the  established the GAAP hierarchy. At the highest level of the hierarchy are FASB statements and interpretations; APB opinions were issued from 1959 to 1973 by the Accounting Principles Board (APB), and Accounting Research Bulletins, issued until 1959 by the Committee on Accounting Procedure (CAP); both the APB and CAP were committees of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).

What type of unit is served by accounting? Probably no concept or idea is more basic to accounting than the accounting unit or entity, a term used to identify the organization for which the accounting service is to be provided and whose accounting or other information is to be analyzed, accumulated, and reported. The entity can be any area, activity, responsibility, or function for which information would be useful. Thus, an entity is established to provide the needed focus of attention. The information about one entity can be consolidated with that of a part or all of another, and this combination process can be continued until the combined entity reaches the unit that is useful for the desired purpose.

Accounting activities may occur within or outside the organization. Although accounting is usually identified with privately owned, profit-seeking entities, its services also are provided to not-for-profit organizations such as universities or hospitals, to governmental organizations, and to other types of units. The organizations may be small, owner-operated enterprises offering a single product or service, or huge multi-enterprise, international conglomerates with thousands of different products and services. The not-for-profit, governmental, or other units may be local, national, or international; they may be small or very large; they may even be entire nations, as in national income accounting. Since not-for-profit and governmental accounting are covered elsewhere in this encyclopedia, the balance of this article will focus on accounting for privately owned, profit-seeking entities.

What is the work of accountants? Accountants help entities be successful, ethical, responsible participants in society. Their major activities include observation, measurement, and communication. These activities are analytical in nature and draw on several other disciplines (e.g., economics, mathematics, statistics, behavioral science, law, history, and language/communication).

Accountants identify, analyze, record, and accumulate facts, estimates, forecasts, and other data about the unit’s activities; then they translate these data into information that can be useful for a specific purpose.

The data accumulation and recording phase traditionally has been largely clerical; typically and appropriately, this has been called bookkeeping, which is still a common and largely manual activity, especially in smaller firms that have not adopted state-of-the-art technology. But with advances in information technology and user-friendly software, the clerical aspect has become largely electronically performed, with internal checks and controls to assure that the input and output are factual and valid.

Accountants design and maintain accounting systems, an entity’s central information system, to help control and provide a record of the entity’s activities, resources, and obligations. Such systems also facilitate reporting on all or part of the entity’s accomplishments for a period of time and on its status at a given point in time.

An organization’s accounting system provides information that (1) helps managers make decisions about assembling resources, controlling, and organizing financing and operating activities; and (2) aids other users (employees, investors, creditors, and others—usually called stakeholders) in making investment, credit, and other decisions.

The accounting system must also provide internal controls to ensure that (1) laws and enterprise policies are properly implemented; (2) accounting records are accurate; (3) enterprise assets are used effectively (e.g., that idle cash balances are being invested to earn returns); and (4) steps be taken to reduce chances of losing assets or incurring liabilities from fraudulent or similar activities, such as the carelessness or dishonesty of employees, customers, or suppliers. Many of these controls are simple (e.g., the prenumbering of documents and accounting for all numbers); others require division of duties among employees to separate record keeping and custodial tasks in order to reduce opportunities for falsification of records and thefts or misappropriation of assets.

An enterprise’s system of internal controls usually includes an internal auditing function and personnel to ensure that prescribed data handling and asset/liability protection procedures are being followed. The internal auditor uses a variety of approaches, including observation of current activities, examination of past transactions, and simulation—often using sample or fictitious transactions—to test the accuracy and reliability of the system.

Accountants may also be responsible for preparing several types of documents. Many of these (e.g., employees’ salary and wage records) also serve as inputs for the accounting system, but many are needed to satisfy other reporting requirements (e.g., employee salary records may be needed to support employee claims for pensions). Accountants also provide data for completing income tax returns.

What is the accountant’s role in decision making? Accountants have a major role in providing information for making economic and financial decisions. Rational decisions are usually based on analyses and comparisons of estimates, which in turn, are based on accounting and other data that project future results from alternative courses of action.

External or financial accounting, reporting, and auditing are directly involved in providing information for the decisions of investors and creditors that help the capital markets to efficiently and effectively allocate resources to enterprises; internal, managerial, or management accounting is responsible for providing information and input to help managers make decisions on the efficient and effective use of enterprise resources.

The accounting information used in making decisions within an enterprise is not subject to governmental or other external regulation, so any rules and constraints are largely self-imposed. As a result, in developing the data and information that are relevant for decisions within the enterprise, managerial accountants are constrained largely by cost-benefit considerations and their own ingenuityand ability to predict future conditions and events.

But accounting to external users (financial accounting, reporting, and auditing) has many regulatory constraints—especially if the enterprise is a “public” corporation whose securities are registered (under the United States Securities Acts of 1933 and 1934) with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and traded publicly over-the-counter or on a stock exchange. Public companies are subject to regulations and reporting requirements imposed and enforced by the SEC; to rules and standards established for its financial reports by the FASB and enforced by the SEC; to regulations of the organization where its securities are traded; and to the regulations of the AICPA, which establishes requirements and standards for its members (who may be either internal or external accountants or auditors).

If the entity is a state or local governmental unit, it is subject to the reporting standards and requirements of the Government Accounting Standards Board. If the entity is private and not a profit-seeking unit, it is subject to various reporting and other regulations, including those of the Internal Revenue Service, which approves its tax status and with which it must file reports.

Largely as a result of the governmental regulation of private profit-seeking businesses that began in 1933, an increasingly clear distinction has been made between managerial or internal accounting and financial accounting that is largely for external users. One important exception to this trend, however, was the change adopted in the 1970s in the objectives of financial reporting such that both managerial and financial accounting now have the same objective: to provide information that is useful for making economic decisions.

But it must be recognized that although the financial accounting information reported to stakeholders comes from the organization’s accounting system, its usefulness for decision making is limited. This is because it is largely historical—it reflects events and activities that occurred in the past, not what is expected in the future. Even estimated data such as budgets and standard costs must be examined regularly to determine whether these past estimates continue to be indicative of current conditions and expectations and thus are useful for making decisions. Thus historical accounting information must be examined carefully, modified, and supplemented to make certain that what is used is relevant to expectations about the future.

But it also must be recognized that accounting can and does provide information that is current and useful in making estimates about future events. For example, accounting provides current-value information about selected items, such as readily marketable investments in debt and equity securities and inventories, and it provides reports on what the organization plans to accomplish and its expectations about the future in budgets and earnings forecasts.

Who uses accounting information for decision making? The information developed by the accountant’s information system can be useful to:

Managers in planning, controlling, and evaluating their organization’s activities

Owners, directors, and others in evaluating the performance of the organization and determining operating, compensation, and other policies

Union, governmental, regulatory, taxing, environmental, and other entities in evaluating whether the organization is conforming with applicable contracts, rules, laws, and public policies and/or whether changes are needed;

Existing and potential owners, lenders, employees, customers, and suppliers in evaluating their current and future commitments to the organization

Accounting researchers, security analysts, security brokers and dealers, mutual-fund managers, and others in their analyses and evaluations of enterprises, capital markets, and/or investors

The services that accounting and the accountant can provide have been enhanced in many ways since the 1970s by advances in computers and other information technology. The impact of these changes is revolutionizing accounting and the accounting profession. But the changes have yet to reach their ultimate potential. For example, accounting in the 1990s began to provide current-value information and estimates about the future that an investor or other user would find useful for decision making. The availability of computer software and the Internet greatly enhanced the potential for data and information services. Such changes create opportunities for accounting and accountants and also will require substantial modifications in the traditional financial accounting and reporting model.

What is the profession of accounting? At the core of the profession of accounting is the certified public accountant (CPA) who has passed the national CPA examination, been licensed in at least one state or territory, and engages in the practice of public accounting/auditing in a public accounting or CPA firm. The CPA firm provides some combination of two or more of four types of services: accounting, auditing, income tax planning and reporting, and management advising/consulting. Analysis of trends indicates that the demand for auditing services has peaked and that most of the growth experienced by public accounting firms is in the consulting area.

Accounting career paths, specializations, or subprofessions for CPAs who join profit-seeking enterprises include being controllers, chief financial officers, or internal auditors. Other career paths include being controllers or chief financial officers in not-for-profit or government organizations and teaching in colleges and universities. Students should note that non-CPAs also could enter these subprofessions and that certificates, but not licenses, could be earned by passing examinations in several areas, including internal auditing, management accounting, and bank auditing.

How do environmental changes impact the accounting profession? Numerous changes in the environment make the practice of accounting and auditing much different in the new century than it was in the 1970s. For example, professional accounting firms now actively compete for clients by advertising extensively in various media, a practice that at one time was forbidden by their code of professional conduct. Mergers of clients have led CPA firms into mergers as well, such that the Big Eight is now the Big Five and the second-tier group has been reduced from twelve firms to about five. Another result of competition and other changes has been that some of the largest employers of CPAs now include income tax and accounting services firms such as H&R Block and an American Express subsidiary.

Competition among CPAs also has led the SEC to expand its regulatory and enforcement activities to ensure that financial reports are relevant and reliable. From its inception, the SEC has had legal authority to prescribe the accounting principles and standards used in the financial reports of enterprises whose securities are publicly traded, but it has delegated this responsibility to the accounting profession. Since 1973, that organization has been the FASB, with which the SEC works closely. But since the FASB is limited to performing what is essentially a legislative function, the SEC has substantially increased its enforcement activities to ensure that the FASB’s standards are appropriately applied in financial reports and that accountants/auditors act in the public interest in performing their independent audits—for which the Securities Acts have given the CPA profession a monopoly.

How does a student prepare for the accounting profession? Persons considering entering the accounting profession should begin by doing some self-analysis to determine whether they enjoy mathematical, problem-or puzzle-solving, or other analytical activities; by taking some aptitude tests; or by talking with accounting teachers or practitioners about their work.

Anyone interested in becoming an accounting professional should expect to enter a rigorous five-year education program and to earn a master’s degree in order to qualify to enter the profession and to sit for the CPA examination. To build a base for rising to the top of the profession, students should select courses that help them learn how to think and to define and solve problems. The courses should help them to develop analytical (logical, mathematical, statistical), communication (oral, reading, writing), computer, and interpersonal skills. The early part of the program should emphasize arts and sciences courses in these skill-development areas.

The person should begin to develop word-processing, data-processing, and Internet skills long before entering college and should expect to maintain competence in them throughout his or her professional career. These skills greatly enhance and facilitate all phases and aspects of what accounting and accountants attempt to do. What can be done is limited only by technology and by the sophistication of the system, its operators, and users.

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