The Objectives And Characteristics Of Financial Reporting

The overarching objective of financial reporting, which includes the production and dissemination of financial information about the company in the form of financial statements, is to provide useful information to investors, creditors, and other interested parties. Ideally, accounting information provides company shareholders and other stakeholders (e.g., employees, communities, customers, and suppliers) with information that aids in the prediction of the amounts, timing, and uncertainty of future cash flows. In addition, financial statements disclose details concerning economic resources and the claims to those resources.

In recent years, there has been a growing demand on the part of stakeholders for information concerning the social impacts of corporate decision making. Increasingly, companies are including additional information about environmental impacts and risks, employees, community involvement, philanthropic activities, and consumer safety. Much of the reporting of such information is voluntary, especially in the United States.

In addition, quantitative data are now supplemented with precise verbal descriptions of business goals and activities. In the United States, for example, publicly traded companies are required to furnish a document commonly identified as “management’s discussion and analysis” as part of the annual report to shareholders. This document summarizes historical performance and includes forward-looking information.

To accountants, the two most important characteristics of useful information are relevance and reliability. Information is relevant to the extent that it can potentially alter a decision. Relevant information helps improve predictions of future events, confirms the outcome of a previous prediction, and should be available before a decision is made. Reliable information is verifiable, representational faithful, and neutral. The hallmark of neutrality is its demand that accounting information not be selected to benefit one class of users to the neglect of others. While accountants recognize a trade off between relevance and reliability, information that lacks either of these characteristics is considered insufficient for decision making.

In addition to being relevant and reliable, accounting information should be comparable and consistent. Comparability refers to the ability to make relevant comparisons between two or more companies in the same industry at a point in time. Consistency refers to the ability to make relevant comparisons within the same company over a period of time.

In general, financial reporting should satisfy the full disclosure principle—meaning that any information that can potentially influence an informed decision maker should be disclosed in a clear and understandable manner on the company’s financial statement.

Company Financial Statements

The primary output of the financial accounting system is the annual financial statement. The three most common components of a financial statement are the balance sheet, the income statement, and the statement of cash flows. In some jurisdictions, summary financial statements are available (or may be required) on a quarterly basis. These reports are usually sent to all investors and others outside the management group. Some companies post their financial statements on the Internet, and in the United States the financial reports for public corporations can be obtained from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) through its website. The preparation of these reports falls within a branch of accounting known as financial accounting.

The balance sheet

A balance sheet describes the resources that are under a company’s control on a specified date and indicates where these resources have come from. As an overview of the company’s financial position, the balance sheet consists of three major sections: (1) the assets, which are probable future economic benefits owned or controlled by the entity; (2) the liabilities, which are probable future sacrifices of economic benefits; and (3) the owners’ equity, calculated as the residual interest in the assets of an entity after deducting liabilities.

The list of assets shows the forms in which the company’s resources are lodged; the list of liabilities and the owners’ equity indicate where these same resources have come from. The balance sheet, in other words, shows the company’s resources from two points of view—asset and liability—and the following relationship must be maintained: total assets are equal to total liabilities plus total owners’ equity.

This same identity is also expressed in another way: total assets minus total liabilities equals total owners’ equity. In this form, the equation emphasizes that the owners’ equity in the company is always equal to the net assets (assets minus liabilities). Any increase in one will inevitably be accompanied by an increase in the other, and the only way to increase the owners’ equity is to increase the net assets. This is known as the fundamental accounting equation.

Assets are ordinarily subdivided into current assets and noncurrent assets. The former include cash, amounts receivable from customers, inventories, and other assets that are expected to be consumed or can be readily converted into cash during the next operating cycle (production, sale, and collection). Noncurrent assets may include noncurrent receivables, fixed assets (such as land and buildings), intangible assets (such as intellectual property), and long-term investments.

The liabilities are similarly divided into current liabilities and noncurrent liabilities. Most amounts payable to the company’s suppliers (accounts payable), to employees (wages payable), or to governments (taxes payable) are included among the current liabilities. Noncurrent liabilities consist mainly of amounts payable to holders of the company’s long-term bonds and such items as obligations to employees under company pension plans. The difference between total current assets and total current liabilities is known as net current assets, or working capital.

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