What are accounting principles?
Accounting principles are the general rules and guidelines that companies are required to follow when reporting all accounts and financial data.
Whilst there is currently no universally standardised accepted accounting principles, there are various accounting frameworks which set the standard body. The most common accounting principle frameworks used are IFRS, UK GAAP, and US GAAP. There are both similarities and differences between these three frameworks, where GAAP is more rule-based whilst IFRS is more principle based.
A number of basic accounting principles have been developed through common usage. They form the basis upon which the complete suite of accounting standards have been built. The best-known of these principles are as follows:
- Accrual principle. This is the concept that accounting transactions should be recorded in the accounting periods when they actually occur, rather than in the periods when there are cash flows associated with them. This is the foundation of the accrual basis of accounting. It is important for the construction of financial statements that show what actually happened in an accounting period, rather than being artificially delayed or accelerated by the associated cash flows. For example, if you ignored the accrual principle, you would record an expense only when you paid for it, which might incorporate a lengthy delay caused by the payment terms for the associated supplier invoice.
- Conservatism principle. This is the concept that you should record expenses and liabilities as soon as possible, but to record revenues and assets only when you are sure that they will occur. This introduces a conservative slant to the financial statements that may yield lower reported profits, since revenue and asset recognition may be delayed for some time. Conversely, this principle tends to encourage the recordation of losses earlier, rather than later. This concept can be taken too far, where a business persistently misstates its results to be worse than is realistically the case.
- Consistency principle. This is the concept that, once you adopt an accounting principle or method, you should continue to use it until a demonstrably better principle or method comes along. Not following the consistency principle means that a business could continually jump between different accounting treatments of its transactions that makes its long-term financial results extremely difficult to discern.
- Cost principle. This is the concept that a business should only record its assets, liabilities, and equity investments at their original purchase costs. This principle is becoming less valid, as a host of accounting standards are heading in the direction of adjusting assets and liabilities to their fair values.
- Economic entity principle. This is the concept that the transactions of a business should be kept separate from those of its owners and other businesses. This prevents intermingling of assets and liabilities among multiple entities, which can cause considerable difficulties when the financial statements of a fledgling business are first audited.
- Full disclosure principle. This is the concept that you should include in or alongside the financial statements of a business all of the information that may impact a reader’s understanding of those statements. The accounting standards have greatly amplified upon this concept in specifying an enormous number of informational disclosures.
- Going concern principle. This is the concept that a business will remain in operation for the foreseeable future. This means that you would be justified in deferring the recognition of some expenses, such as depreciation, until later periods. Otherwise, you would have to recognize all expenses at once and not defer any of them.
- Matching principle. This is the concept that, when you record revenue, you should record all related expenses at the same time. Thus, you charge inventory to the cost of goods sold at the same time that you record revenue from the sale of those inventory items. This is a cornerstone of the accrual basis of accounting. The cash basis of accounting does not use the matching the principle.
- Materiality principle. This is the concept that you should record a transaction in the accounting records if not doing so might have altered the decision making process of someone reading the company’s financial statements. This is quite a vague concept that is difficult to quantify, which has led some of the more picayune controllers to record even the smallest transactions.
- Monetary unit principle. This is the concept that a business should only record transactions that can be stated in terms of a unit of currency. Thus, it is easy enough to record the purchase of a fixed asset, since it was bought for a specific price, whereas the value of the quality control system of a business is not recorded. This concept keeps a business from engaging in an excessive level of estimation in deriving the value of its assets and liabilities.
- Reliability principle. This is the concept that only those transactions that can be proven should be recorded. For example, a supplier invoice is solid evidence that an expense has been recorded. This concept is of prime interest to auditors, who are constantly in search of the evidence supporting transactions.
- Revenue recognition principle. This is the concept that you should only recognize revenue when the business has substantially completed the earnings process. So many people have skirted around the fringes of this concept to commit reporting fraud that a variety of standard-setting bodies have developed a massive amount of information about what constitutes proper revenue recognition.
- Time period principle. This is the concept that a business should report the results of its operations over a standard period of time. This may qualify as the most glaringly obvious of all accounting principles, but is intended to create a standard set of comparable periods, which is useful for trend analysis.
Understanding Accounting Principles
Generally Accepted Accounting Principles
Publicly traded companies in the United States are required to regularly file GAAP compliant financial statements in order to remain publicly listed on stock exchanges. Chief officers of publicly traded companies and their independent auditors must certify that the financial statements and related notes were prepared in accordance with GAAP.
Privately held companies and nonprofit organizations may also be required by lenders or investors to file GAAP compliant financial statements. For example, annual audited GAAP financial statements are a common loan covenant required by most banking institutions. Therefore, most companies and organizations in the United States comply with GAAP, even though it is not necessarily a requirement.
Accounting principles help govern the world of accounting according to general rules and guidelines. GAAP attempts to standardize and regulate the definitions, assumptions, and methods used in accounting. There are a number of principles, but some of the most notable include the revenue recognition principle, matching principle, materiality principle, and consistency principle. The ultimate goal of standardized accounting principles is to allow financial statement users to view a company’s financials with the certainty that information disclosed in the report is complete, consistent, and comparable.
Completeness is ensured by the materiality principle, as all material transactions should be accounted for in the financial statements. Consistency refers to a company’s use of accounting principles over time. When accounting principles allow choice between multiple methods, a company should apply the same accounting method over time or disclose its change in accounting method in the footnotes to the financial statements.
Comparability is the ability for financial statement users to review multiple companies’ financials side by side with the guarantee that accounting principles have been followed to the same set of standards. Accounting information is not absolute or concrete, and standards such as GAAP are developed to minimize the negative effects of inconsistent data. Without GAAP, comparing financial statements of companies would be extremely difficult, even within the same industry, making an apples-to-apples comparison hard. Inconsistencies and errors would also be harder to spot.
International Financial Reporting Standards
Accounting principles differ from country to country. The International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) issues International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). These standards are used in over 120 countries, including those in the European Union (EU). The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the U.S. government agency responsible for protecting investors and maintaining order in the securities markets, has expressed that the U.S. will not be switching to IFRS in the foreseeable future. However, the FASB and the IASB continue to work together to issue similar regulations on certain topics as accounting issues arise. For example, in 2016 the FASB and the IASB jointly announced new revenue recognition standards.
Since accounting principles differ across the world, investors should take caution when comparing the financial statements of companies from different countries. The issue of differing accounting principles is less of a concern in more mature markets. Still, caution should be used as there is still leeway for number distortion under many sets of accounting principles.
Why Are Accounting Principles Important?
Generally Accepted Accounting Principles are important because they set the rules for reporting and bookkeeping. These rules, often called the GAAP framework, maintain consistency in financial reporting from company to company across all industries.
Remember, the entire point of financial accounting is to provide useful information to financial statement users. If everyone reported their financial information differently, it would be difficult to compare companies. Accounting principles set the rules for reporting financial information, so all companies can be compared uniformly.
What is the Purpose of Accounting Principles?
The purpose of accounting principles is to establish the framework for how financial accounting is recorded and reported on financial statements. When every company follows the same framework and rules, investors, creditors, and other financial statement users will have an easier time understanding the reports and making decisions based on them.
Examples of accounting principles
There are some of the main accounting principles and guidelines, listed under US GAAP:
- Conservatism principle – In situations where there are two acceptable solutions for reporting an item, the accountant should ‘play it safe’ by choose the less favourable outcome. This concept allows accountants to anticipate future losses, rather than future gains.
- Consistency principle – The consistency principle states that once you decide on an accounting method or principle to use in your business, you need to stick with and follow this method throughout your accounting periods.
- Cost principle – A business should record their assets, liabilities and equity at the original cost at which they were bought or sold. The real value may change over time (e.g. depreciation of assets/inflation) but this is not reflected for reporting purposes.
- Economic entity principle – The transactions of a business should be kept and treated separately to that of its owners and other businesses.
- Full disclosure principle – Any important information that may impact the reader’s understanding of a business’s financial statements should be disclosed or included alongside to the statement.
- Going concern principle – The concept that assumes a business will continue to exist and operate in the foreseeable future, and not liquidate. This allows a business to defer some prepaid expenses (accrued) to future accounting periods, rather than recognise them all at once.
- Matching principle – The concept that each revenue recorded should be matched and recorded with all the related expenses, at the same time. Specifically in accrual accounting, the matching principle states that for every debit there should be a credit (and vice versa).
- Materiality principle – An item is considered ‘material’ if it would affect or influence the decision of a reasonable individual reading the company’s financial statements. This concept states that accountants must be sure to include and report all material items in the financial statement.
- Monetary unit principle – Businesses should only record transactions that can be expressed in terms of a stable unit of currency.
- Reliability principle – The reliability principle is used as a guideline in determining which financial information should be presented in the accounts of a business.
- Revenue recognition principle – Companies should record their revenues when it is recognised, or in the same time period of when it was accrued (rather than when it was received).
- Time period principle – A business should report their financial statements (income statement/balance sheet) appropriate to a specific time period.