What is Accounting - Accountancy, What is Accounts, Ideas for Accounting

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Painting of Luca Pacioli, father of modern accountancy
Painting of Luca Pacioli, father of modern accountancy, attributed to Jacopo de'Barba.

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Important Note
Because the material covered here and following pages is considered an introduction to the topic of Accountancy and Accounting, there are many complexities not presented. You should always consult with a business accounting professional for assistance with your own specific circumstances.

So What is Accounting? Accounting Theory? Accounting is the basic language of business. In its simplest, it is the study of communicating financial information about a business to its owner and stakeholders. There are several types of accounting, all of which are essential to the operation of a successful business.

The recording, verifying and reporting of the assets, liabilities and equity of a business aid in the managerial decision-making process of businesses.

Accountancy (profession) or
Accounting (methodology)

is the measurement, statement or provision of assurance about financial information primarily used by business managers, investors, tax authorities and other financial decision makers to make resource allocation decisions within companies, organizations, and public agencies.

The terms derive from the use of financial accounts. Accounting is the discipline of measuring, communicating and interpreting financial activity. Accounting is also widely referred to as the "language of business".

Financial accounting is one branch of accounting and historically has involved processes by which financial information about a business is recorded, classified, summarized, interpreted, and communicated; for public companies, this information is generally publicly-accessible.

By contrast management accounting information is used within an organization and is usually confidential and accessible only to a small group, mostly decision-makers. Tax Accounting is the accounting needed to comply with jurisdictional tax regulations.

Practitioners of accountancy are known as accountants. There are many professional bodies for accountants throughout the world. Many allow their members to use titles indicating their membership or qualification level.

Examples are Chartered Certified Accountant (ACCA or FCCA), Chartered Accountant (FCA, CA or ACA), Management Accountant (ACMA, FCMA or AICWA), Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and Certified General Accountant (CGA or FCGA).

Auditing is a related but separate discipline, with two sub-disciplines: internal auditing and external auditing. External auditing is the process whereby an independent auditor examines an organization's financial statements and accounting records in order to express an opinion as to the truth and fairness of the statements and the accountant's adherence to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), or International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), in all material respects. Internal auditing aims at providing information for management usage, and is typically carried out by auditors employed by the company, and sometimes by external service providers.

Accounting - accountancy attempts to create accurate financial reports that are useful to managers, regulators, and other stakeholders such as shareholders, creditors, or owners. The day-to-day record-keeping involved in this process is known as bookkeeping. Accounting scholarship is the academic discipline which studies accounting/accountancy.

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Modern Accounting - Accountancy

Accounting is the process of identifying, measuring and communicating economic information so a user of the information may make informed economic judgments and decisions based on it.

Accounting is the degree of measurement of financial transactions which are transfers of legal property rights made under contractual relationships. Non-financial transactions are specifically excluded due to conservatism and materiality principles.

At the heart of modern financial accounting is the double-entry bookkeeping system. This system involves making at least two entries for every transaction: a debit in one account, and a corresponding credit in another account.

The sum of all debits should always equal the sum of all credits, providing a simple way to check for errors. This system was first used in medieval Europe, although claims have been made that the system dates back to Ancient Rome or Greece.

According to critics of standard Accounting practices, it has changed little since. Accounting reform measures of some kind have been taken in each generation to attempt to keep bookkeeping relevant to capital assets or production capacity.

However, these have not changed the basic principles, which are supposed to be independent of economics as such. In recent times, the divergence of accounting from economic principles has resulted in controversial reforms to make financial reports more indicative of economic reality.

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History of Accounting

Early History

Accountancy's infancy dates back to the earliest days of human agriculture and civilization (the Sumerians in Mesopotamia), when the need to maintain accurate records of the quantities and relative values of agricultural products first arose.

Simple accounting is mentioned in the Christian Bible (New Testament) in the Book of Matthew, in the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:19). The Islamic Quran also mentions simple accounting for trade and credit arrangements (Quran 2: 282).

Twelfth-century A.D. Arab writer Ibn Taymiyyah mentioned in his book Hisba (literally, "verification" or "calculation") detailed accounting systems used by Muslims as early as in the mid-seventh century A.D. These accounting practices were influenced by the Roman and the Persian civilizations that Muslims interacted with.

The most detailed example Ibn Taymiyyah provides of a complex governmental accounting system is the Divan of Umar, the second Caliph of Islam, in which all revenues and disbursements were recorded. The Divan of Umar has been described in detail by various Islamic historians and was used by Muslim rulers in the Middle East with modifications and enhancements until the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Luca Pacioli and the birth of modern Accountancy

The first book on Accounting was written by Benedetto Cotrugli (also known as Benedikt Kotruljević), a merchant from the Republic of Ragusa (modern Dubrovnik, Croatia).

During his life in Italy he met many merchants and decided to write Della Mercatura et del Mercante Perfetto (On Trade and the Perfect Merchant) in which he elaborated on the principles of the modern double-entry book-keeping. He finished his lifework in 1458. However, his work was not published until 1573, as a result of which his contributions to the field have been overlooked by the general public.

For this reason, Luca Pacioli (1445 - 1517), also known as Friar Luca dal Borgo , is credited for the "birth" of accounting. His Summa de arithmetica, geometrica, proportioni et proportionalita (Summa on arithmetic, geometry, proportions and proportionality, Venice 1494), a synthesis of the mathematical knowledge of his time, includes the first published description of the method of keeping accounts that Venetian merchants used at that time, known as the double-entry accounting system.

Although Pacioli codified rather than invented this system, he is widely regarded as the "Father of Accounting". The system he published included most of the accounting cycle as we know it today. He described the use of journals and ledgers, and warned that a person should not go to sleep at night until the debits equaled the credits!

His ledger had accounts for assets (including receivables and inventories), liabilities, capital, income, and expenses — the account categories that are reported on an organization's balance sheet and income statement, respectively. He demonstrated year-end closing entries and proposed that a trial balance be used to prove a balanced ledger. His treatise also touches on a wide range of related topics from accounting ethics to cost accounting.

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After Pacioli

The first known book in the English language on Accounting was published in London, England by John Gouge (or Gough) in 1543. It is described as A Profitable Treatyce called the Instrument or Boke to learn to know the good order of the kepyng of the famouse reconynge, called in Latin, Dare and Habere, and, in English, Debtor and Creditor.

A short book of instructions was also published in 1588 by John Mellis of Southwark, England, in which he says, "I am but the renuer and reviver of an ancient old copies printed here in London the 14 of August 1543: collected, published, made, and set forth by one Hugh Oldcastle, Schoolmaster, who, as reappeared by his treatise, then taught Arithmetics, and this booke in Saint Ollaves parish in Marko Lane." Mellis refers to the fact that the principle of accounts he explains (which is a simple system of double entry) is "after the former of Venice".

A book described as The Merchants Mirrour, or directions for the perfect ordering and keeping of his accounts formed by way of Debitor and Creditor, after the (so termed) Italian manner, by Richard Dafforne, accountant, published in 1635, contains many references to early books on the science of accountancy.

In a chapter in this book, headed "Opinion of Book-keeping's Antiquity," the author states, on the authority of another writer, that the form of book-keeping referred to had then been in use in Italy about two hundred years, "but that the same, or one in many parts very like this, was used in the time of Julius Caesar, and in Rome long before." He gives quotations of Latin book-keeping terms in use in ancient times, and refers to "ex Oratione Ciceronis pro Roscio Comaedo"; and he adds:

"That the one side of their booke was used for Debitor, the other for Creditor, is manifest in a certain place, Naturalis Historiae Plinii, lib. 2, cap. 7, where hee, speaking of Fortune, saith thus: Huic Omnia Expensa. Huic Omnia Feruntur accepta et in tota Ratione mortalium sola. Utramque Paginam facit."

An early Dutch writer appears to have suggested that double-entry book-keeping was even in existence among the Greeks, pointing to scientific accountancy having been invented in remote times.

There were several editions of Richard Dafforne's book - the second edition in 1636, the third in 1656, and another in 1684. The book is a very complete treatise on scientific accountancy, beautifully prepared and containing elaborate explanations.

The numerous editions tend to prove that the science was highly appreciated in the 17th century. From this time on, there has been a continuous supply of literature on the subject, many of the authors styling themselves accountants and teachers of the art, and thus proving that the professional accountant was then known and employed.

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Accountancy Qualifications and Regulation

The expectations for qualification in the profession of Accounting vary between different jurisdictions and countries.

Accountants may be certified by a variety of organizations or bodies, such as the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT), British qualified accountancy bodies including the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) and Institute of Chartered Accountants, and are recognized by titles such as Chartered Management Accountant (ACMA or FCMA) Chartered Certified Accountant (ACCA or FCCA) and Chartered Accountant (UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Ghana), Certified Public Accountant (Ireland, Japan, US, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines), Certified Management Accountant (Canada, U.S.), Certified General Accountant (Canada), or Certified Practicing Accountant (Australia).

Some Commonwealth countries (Australia and Canada) often recognize both the certified and chartered accounting bodies. The majority of "public" accountants in New Zealand and Canada are Chartered Accountants; however, Certified General Accountants are also authorized by legislation to practice public accounting and auditing in all Canadian provinces, except Ontario and Quebec, as of 2005.

There is, however, no legal requirement for an accountant to be a paid-up member of one of the many Institutes and other bodies which are effectively a form of professional trade union. Unlike the Law Society, which can legally stop a solicitor from practicing, accountancy institutes do not have such authority. However, auditors are regulated.

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The "Big Four" Accountancy Firms

The "Big Four auditors" are the largest multinational Accountancy firms.

  • PricewaterhouseCoopers

  • Ernst & Young

  • KPMG

  • Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu

These firms are associations of the partnerships in each country rather than having the classical structure of holding company and subsidiaries, but each has an international 'umbrella' organization for coordination (technically known as a Swiss Verein).

Before the Enron and other accounting scandals in the United States, there were five large firms and were called the Big Five: Arthur Andersen, PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu and Ernst & Young.

On June 15, 2002, Arthur Andersen was convicted of obstruction of justice for shredding documents related to its audit of Enron. Nancy Temple (Andersen Legal Dept.) and David Duncan (Lead Partner for the Enron account) were cited as the responsible managers in this scandal as they had given the order to shred relevant documents. Since the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission does not allow convicted felons to audit public companies, the firm agreed to surrender its licenses and its right to practice before the SEC on August 31, 2002.

A plurality of Arthur Andersen joined KPMG in the US and Deloitte & Touche outside of the US. Historically, there had also been groupings referred to as the "Big Six" (Arthur Andersen, plus Coopers & Lybrand before its merger with Price Waterhouse) and the "Big Eight" (Ernst and Young prior to their merger were Ernst & Whinney and Arthur Young and Deloitte & Touche was formed by the merger of Deloitte, Haskins and Sells with the firm Touche Ross).

Enron turned out to be only the first of a series of serious accounting scandals that enveloped the Accounting Industry in 2002.

This is likely to have far-reaching consequences for the U.S. Accounting Industry. Application of International Accounting Standards originating in International Accounting Standards Board headquartered in London and bearing more resemblance to UK than current US practices is often advocated by those who note the relative stability of the UK accounting system (which reformed itself after scandals in the late 1980s and early 1990s). Accounting reform of a far more comprehensive sort is advocated by those who see issues with capitalism or economics, and seek ecological or social accountability.

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Bodies and Organizations

Accounting standard-setting bodies

  • International
    • International Federation of Accountants

    • International Accounting Standards Board

  • United States
    • Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) - its Statements of Financial Accounting Standards (FAS) and Interpretations (FIN) are the level A guidance in the GAAP hierarchy.

    • AICPA Accounting Principles Board (APB) - until 1973, the existing standards are still level A guidance.

    • AICPA Committee on Accounting Procedure, which issued Accounting Research Bulletins (ARB) - until 1959, the existing standards are still level A guidance.

    • American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), which issues industry audit and accounting guides as well as Statements of Positions (SOP), which are B level guidance in the GAAP hierarchy, and Accounting Interpretations (AIN), D level guidance.

    • U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)and FASB staff announcements are C level guidance in the GAAP hierarchy.

    • Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB).

    • Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board (FASAB).

  • Other Countries (specific)
    • Australia
      • Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia.

    • Canada
      • Accounting Standards Board "AcSB".

    • Germany
      • Accounting Standards Committee of Germany (ASCG, in German: DRSC).

    • Ghana
      • Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ghana.

    • Hong Kong
      • Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants (HKICPA) (formerly known as Hong Kong Society of Accountants (HKSA)).

    • India
      • Institute of Chartered Accountants of India.

    • Malaysia
      • Malaysian Accounting Standards Board.

      • Malaysian Institute of Accountants.

    • Nigeria
      • Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN).

    • New Zealand
      • Accounting Standards Review Board.

      • New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants.

    • Ireland
      • Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland.

    • South Africa
      • South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA).

    • United Kingdom
      • Accounting Standards Board.

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Professional organizations

  • Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT).

  • American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).

  • German CPA Society (GCPAS).

  • CPA Australia.

  • Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia.

  • Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS).

  • Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland (ICAI).

  • Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW).

  • Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA).

  • Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants (CICA).

  • Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN).

  • Certified General Accountants Association of Canada (CGA).

  • Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA).

  • Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA).

  • Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants (HKICPA) (formerly known as Hong Kong Society of Accountants (HKSA)).

  • Institute of Chartered Accountants of India.

  • Malaysian Institute of Accountants.

  • New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants.

  • Philippine Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

  • South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA).

  • Institute of Chartered Accountants of Pakistan (ICAP).

  • International Federation of Accountants.

  • Ordre des Experts Comptables de Tunisie.

  • Association of National Accountants of Nigeria (ANAN).

  • Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN).

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Government agencies

Government agencies enforce the securities laws. Public companies must file financial reports with these government agencies.

  • United States
    • U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) (for public companies)

    • Federal Reserve (for banks)

  • Germany
    • German Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin).

  • India
    • Reserve Bank of India (for banks)

    • Securities & Exchange Board of India (SEBI)(for public companies)

Oversight boards (regulators for the Accounting Industry)

Oversight boards are new, private-sector non-profit organizations that were set up after the Enron scandal to oversee the auditors of public companies.

  • United States
    • Public Company Accounting Oversight Board - public companies

  • Germany
    • German Auditor Oversight Commission (AOC, in German: APAK

Auditing standards-setting bodies

  • International
    • International Auditing and Assurance Standards Board

  • United States
    • Public Company Accounting Oversight Board - public companies

    • American Institute of Certified Public Accountants - general

    • Government Accountability Office - recipients of federal grants

    • Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA) (Information System Auditing Guideline)

  • Australia
    • AUASB - Auditing & Assurance Standards Board

  • Germany
    • German Institute of Certified Public Accountants (IDW)

  • Hong Kong
    • Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants (HKICPA) (formerly known as Hong Kong Society of Accountants (HKSA))

  • South Africa
    • Public Accountants and Auditors Board - public companies

  • United Kingdom
    • Auditing Practices Board

  • India
    • Auditing & Assurance Standards Board

  • Pakistan
    • Institute of Chartered Accountants of Pakistan

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Size of Market

United Kingdom

According to Accountancy Age's 2005 league table, fee income amongst the Top 50 accounting firms in the UK rose from £6.3bn to £7.0bn. This followed two successive years in which fee income had declined, largely a result of the sale by some of the larger firms of their consultancy arms. As detailed in the next section, fee income in most business areas - audit, tax, corporate finance and consultancy - rose in the 2005 survey, with insolvency and wealth management being the only segments where revenue fell.

PricewaterhouseCoopers remains the largest firm with fee income totaling £1,780m followed by Deloitte (£1,350m), KPMG (£1,066m) and Ernst & Young (£945m). The combined revenue of the Big Four accounted for £5.0bn, 72% of the fee income of the Top 50, down from 78-79% in the years up to the 2002 survey and the third year in succession a decline in their share has occurred.

Ernst & Young's fee income is the smallest of the largest four firms, but still over three times that of the next largest firm, Grant Thornton. The amount of fee income tapers off amongst the mid-tier firms so that in total there were only 25 firms that each generated more than £15m of revenue in the 2005 survey.

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Business Tips

Some tips on how to avoid business failure:

  • Don't underestimate the capital you need to start up the business.

  • Understand and keep control of your finances - income earned is not the same as cash in hand.

  • More volume does not automatically mean more profit - you need to get your pricing right.

  • Make sure you have good software for your business, software that provides you with a good reporting picture of all aspects of your business operations.

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Important Note
Because the material covered here and following pages is considered an introduction to the topic of Accountancy and Accounting, there are many complexities not presented. You should always consult with a business accounting professional for assistance with your own specific circumstances.

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