Friday, 25 May 2007

The Revenge Of The Bean Counters

It is hard to get excited about accounting standards. And yet, these small, seemingly inconsequential, things have a great impact on our lives. This was brought to the forefront of my mind this week through an article in The Economist about accounting standards (see article). Apparently, there are two key approaches to accounting standards – the Rules Based Approach and the Principles Based Approach.

The Rules Based Approach is just that – accounts have to be produced to conform to a set of rules that govern the construction of a set of accounts. The problem is, as Enron quite ably showed, that a set of accounts may conform to a set of accounting rules, but paint a misleading picture of the state and performance of a company. This is where the Principles Based Approach has the advantage. Not only must a set of accounts conform to the letter of law, it must also conform to the spirit of the law as well. In this case, the role of the independent auditor becomes far more important, particularly if they have a statutory duty of care to a widely based community.

It would appear that the Principles Based Approach (mainly adopted in Europe and Asia) is driving out the Rules Based Approach (mainly adopted in the US), as the users of accounts (primarily the investment community) demand ‘true and fair’ accounts from companies. This has two important futures points – one trite and the other profound. The trite point is that it gives an example of how ‘Europe’, as argued by Mark Leonard (see our review), will run the Twenty First Century by dominating the cultural infrastructure of globalisation.

This leads to the more profound point. If we accept, as Thomas Barnett argues in ‘The Blueprint For Action’, that globalisation consists of the harmonisation of national rule sets into a single global rule set observed by all of the ‘insiders’ to globalisation, then the harmonisation of accounting rules is central to that process. As it happens, I have recently encountered the XBRL programme (see link) which aims to harmonise the electronic infrastructure of international financial reporting. To conform to an EU Directive, all UK company accounts will have to report in XBRL from 2011.

This will have the effect of binding the process of globalisation even tighter than it is now. The Chinese companies listed on London’s AIM market will have to report in XBRL, as will the Russian energy companies that have sought listings in London. The impact of this change will be to make national differences even less significant than they are now.

I wonder how long it will be before this commercial transparency and accountability feeds into the political arena in both China and Russia?

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