- Understand why it’s not a good idea to falsify financial statements.
- Appreciate the background behind stricter legal and professional standards in U.S. business and accounting practice.
- Understand ethics and their importance in the accounting profession.
- Identify career opportunities in accounting.
Accountant, Audit Thyself?
Consider the following scenario. You feel good that you’ve managed to create relevant, accurate, timely financial statements for your first year in business as The College Shop, but you find that you’re disappointed about one thing—your net income figure. For some time now, you’ve been trying to convince a friend to invest in The College Shop, telling him that the business would bring in at least $40,000 in income during its first year. Every time you review the income statement in Figure 12.15 “Income Statement for The College Shop, Year Ended December 31” (shown in abbreviated form below), however, you’re forced to face the fact that you earned just $30,000—$10,000 short of your optimistic projection.
Revenues − Expenses (CGS, operating expenses, interest and taxes) = Net income
$500,000 − $470,000 = $30,000
As you stare one more time at your bottom line, you’re wishing that there was some way to change that single bothersome digit and transform $30,000 into $40,000. Then it hits you. You know that it’s not exactly the most upright thing to do, but what if you were to shift half of your first-year advertising expense of $20,000 into your second year of operation? If you did that, then you’d cut the advertising expense on your first-year income statement by $10,000. Now, with your newly acquired understanding of accounting principles, you know that if you reduce expenses on your income statement by $10,000, your net income will increase by the same amount. So just to see what your “revised” income statement would look like, you go ahead and make your hypothetical change. Sure enough, mission accomplished: Your income statement now reports a net income of $40,000—your actual net income of $30,000 plus your upward “adjustment” of $10,000.
Revenues − Expenses (CGS, operating expenses, interest and taxes) = Net income
$500,000 − $460,000 = $40,000
Although you now feel even more satisfied than ever with your newfound expertise in accounting strategy, you’re once again forced to stop and think. If you merely change your net income and nothing else, the balance sheet in Figure 12.17 “End-of-Year Balance Sheet for The College Shop” won’t balance any more. Why not? Because when you inflated your net income to $40,000 and added it to your beginning owner’s equity balance of $150,000, this increased your owner’s equity by $10,000—from $180,000 to $190,000. To make sure that you’ve accurately assessed the snag in your strategy, you plug in the accounting equation—
assets = liabilities + owner’s equity
—and this, unfortunately, is what you get:
$360,000 ≠ $180,000 + $190,000.
So, now what? As you ponder the troublesome ramifications of your balance sheet, yet another accounting strategy pops into your head. At the end of the year, you still owed $6,000 for radio ads and $4,000 for newspaper ads—$10,000 that’s included in accounts payable on your year-end balance sheet. What if you just reduced your accounts payable balance by $10,000? If you did that, you’d also reduce by $10,000 the amount under liabilities and owner’s equity, cutting it from $370,000 to $360,000. Wouldn’t that make everything balance? Plugging in the numbers from your latest brainstorm, you now get:
$360,000 = $170,000 + $190,000.
That’s more like it. Now you can go ahead and “adjust” your financial statements, satisfied that you’re well on your way to mastering all of the accounting strategy that you’ll need to handle the financial-reporting needs of your new business.
Accounting “Strategy,” Ethics, and the Law
Unfortunately, you may also be well on your way to becoming the Bernie Ebbers of the small-business set. In 2002, when the giant telecom company WorldCom collapsed under the weight of an $11 billion fraud scheme, CEO Ebbers, who was convicted of securities fraud and conspiracy, got twenty-five years in a federal penitentiary (“I don’t know accounting,” he told the judge). And Ebbers wasn’t the only person on the WorldCom payroll who was charged with illegal activities: Accounting department managers went down with him. Betty Vinson, for example, a forty-seven-year-old midlevel accountant who’d followed orders to falsify accounting records, was sentenced to five months in jail. And she was lucky—she got minimal jail time because she cooperated with federal prosecutors (Pulliam, 2003).
The damage done at WorldCom spread to innocent employees as well, not to mention investors, creditors, and business partners. In 2001, when Enron, the seventh-largest company in America, melted down in the heat of an investigation into its financial-reporting practices, it took down an entire accounting firm with it—eighty-nine-year-old Arthur Andersen, then one of the “Big Five” public accounting firms. Volumes have been written about what went wrong, but we can pretty much boil it down to this: Enron executives behaved unethically and illegally, and Andersen auditors looked the other way. Instead of performing its role as public watchdog, Andersen was watching its own pocketbook: The accounting firm protected the revenues generated by lucrative consulting contracts with its client instead of protecting the client’s stakeholders. In so doing, Andersen not only shirked its responsibilities as a public auditor but also covered up evidence of its own inappropriate actions.
In 2002, Andersen gave up its licenses to practice as certified public accountants in the United States, and a company that had employed 85,000 people only 10 years earlier now employs about 200, most of them to deal with lawsuits and to oversee the process of shutting down the company for good (Moffett, 2004; Toffler & Reingold, 2003).
Who Can You Trust?
In a very real sense, the issue at the bottom of all this financial misconduct is trustworthiness. As we’ve seen, accountants are supposed to provide users with financial reports that are useful because they’re relevant, timely, and, most important, accurate. It should go without saying that if users—whether internal or external—can’t trust these reports to be accurate, they can’t rely on them to be as useful as they should be. Would you, for instance, invest in or loan money to a company whose financial reports you can’t trust?
Which—appropriately—brings us back to you and your little foray into falsifying accounting records. Let’s say that in February of your second year of operations, you have an unexpected opportunity to expand into the vacated store right next to The College Shop. It’s too good to pass up, but you’ll need quite a bit of money to outfit the space and expand your inventory. First, you go to the friend for whose benefit you “adjusted” your financial statements, but he’s just lost a bundle in the stock market and can’t help you out. Your only option, then, is to get a bank loan. So you go to your banker, and some version of the following exchange occurs early in the conversation:
I need a loan.
Let me see your financial statements.
She means, of course, the first-year statements that you falsified, and if you’re offered and accept a loan under these circumstances, you could be guilty of a financial crime that, according to the FBI, is normally characterized by “deceit, concealment, or violation of trust” and committed “to obtain personal or business advantage.” The maximum you could get under federal law is twenty years, although your case no doubt calls for a sentence measured in mere months (Federal Bureau of Investigations, 2005).
Are You Ethical?
We could give you the benefit of the doubt and agree that you wouldn’t have gotten yourself into this mess had you known the legal ramifications. We must assume, however, that you knew what you did was ethically wrong. Ethics refers to the ability and willingness to distinguish right from wrong and to know when you’re doing one or the other. Ethical and trustworthy behavior is critical in both business and accounting, and although the vast majority of businesspeople and accountants behave ethically, all of them—especially providers of financial information—constantly face ethical dilemmas in the course of their work.
Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX)
It will be helpful to remember that both the law and the accounting profession have taken steps to remind you of your responsibilities when you’re reporting financial information. In the wake of corporate scandals like the ones we described above, Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) of 2002, which was designed to encourage ethical corporate behavior and to discourage fraud and other forms of corporate wrongdoing. Among other things, SOX requires its top executives to take responsibility for a company’s financial statements and subjects them to criminal penalties for falsely certifying its financial reports. SOX also set up the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) to regulate accounting professionals, especially in the area of auditing standards.
The Profession’s Code of Ethics
Finally, you can always turn to the Code of Professional Ethics of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), which sets down two hallmarks of ethical behavior (American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, 2006):
- Integrity. An accountant should be “honest and candid” and should never subordinate the “public trust…to personal gain and advantage.”
- Objectivity and independence. An accountant should be “impartial, intellectually honest, and free of conflicts of interest.” He or she is “scrupulous in [the] application of generally accepted accounting principles and candid in all…dealings with members in public practice.”