Friday, July 1, 2011

Financial Statements, So What? PART III

In Part I, of this series I discussed Compiled Financial Statements and in PART II I went over the salient facts of Reviewed Financial Statements. Here we will take a very brief view of Audited Financial Statements.

An Audit can be performed on the most common basis of accounting used in Compiled and Reviewed Financial statements. Modified Cash, GAAP and the Income Tax Basis of accounting and in some cases where the financials are prepared based on industry or other regulatory accounting rules -Statutory Basis may be used. However, unlike Compiled and Reviewed financial statements, here in the United States, the most common basis of accounting for Audits is GAAP. Perhaps, followed by Statutory Basis financials. Why? Simply put GAAP is the basis of accounting that is most used by public corporations that are traded by stock exchanges and is the United States financial reporting standard. The exception are insurance companies, utilities and other industry specific companies that have a regulatory basis of accounting.  GAAP is a “rules based” method of accounting that is many, many years in the making with very precise and specific rules to aid, among many factors, in comparing financials among companies in an industry. Increasing demand and a trend towards allowing “IFRS” or International Financial Reporting Standards are well underway, for multinational public companies and foreign companies. IFRS is not rules based but more broad “principles based” form of accounting. This gives a great deal of flexibility but still maintains critical reporting standards. Where GAAP is based on historical costs, IFRS allows for fair market value reporting. This can be a very valuable contribution to financial reporting.

An audit is by far the most complicated set of financial statements that CPA’s prepare. Again, here too the financials are the assertions of management and the accountants render an opinion as to whether the financials, including the notes and other supplementary information, present fairly, the results of operations, financial position and cash flows of the company. Further CPA’s must be independent in order to render an opinion. The financials are not the responsibility of the CPA’s, only the opinion they render is the responsibility of the CPA’s. This is worth noting as it is a common misunderstanding of the general public.

An “Audit Program” is the game plan that accountants use in order to audit the company’s books and records. Some of the tools CPA’s use include trend analysis, industry metrics, observations, testing of transactions and internal controls and confirmations of accounts and notes receivables and  accounts and notes payables. Physical observations and counts are performed on assets and inventories to make sure they not only exist but they are valued correctly. Inquiries are made of the company’s lawyers to determine law suits or potential lawsuits and claims. An accounting of uncertain tax positions are made to determine potential liabilities. Mathematical statistics and sampling techniques are applied and used extensively to make inferences as to the value of certain accounts. A great deal of professional judgment is applied as to whether the Audit Program is sufficient, as to whether the conclusions are correct, and simply as to whether all aspects of the company are properly accounted for and disclosed either in the body of the financial statements, supplementary information or in the notes and disclosures.

Audit services are extremely important to a capitalist market such as our own. I believe it safe to say, Wall Street would not be the center of financial power and wealth if it where not for the audited financial reports that auditors render opinions on. In other words, if you couldn’t compare companies on the same set of accounting rules and or you could not trust the financial statements of companies that trade their stocks, bonds and other financial instruments traded on Wall Street; bankers, investment funds, investors, brokerage houses and the public at large could not make good financial decisions. Essentially, capitalism would come to a screeching halt. Jobs would be lost, lending would dry up and a recession followed by a depression would follow only to be superseded by a global financial collapse.  We got a bad taste of that in 2008, when the United States and the world lost faith in the United States. Not because the accounting was bad, but because it was good enough so that everyone could see that the underlying value of loans and real estate, on corporate books was no longer there and all the companies involved essentially plummeted in value. It was the beginning of a financial collapse.

The most common misunderstanding about audits are that that they are designed to detect fraud, theft and the misappropriation of funds. Audits do sometimes detect these matters. However, an audit has to be specifically designed to detect these types of matters. Even then, audits rely on the honesty of the management. If management is involved in fraud, theft or the misappropriation of funds it is often very difficult to detect. This is why audits rely heavily on internal controls and various other safeguards. It’s a lot harder to get away with any wrongdoing if it requires various levels of management to get away with it.

Audits are expensive simply because of the risk auditors take and because of the amount of work that needs to get done. For many small companies audits are cost prohibitive. Some small poorly run small companies may not even be auditable.

Although I do not perform audits, during the past years my firm has been involved in a number of audits either in preparing clients for audits,  securing auditors, or assisting management who undergo an audit.  For small and medium size companies that do not have internal auditors, having an external CPA is a valuable asset and company resource. It’s possible a relationship with my firm can save your company a great deal of money if you undergo an audit.

IRS Revokes Tax Exempt Status of 275,000 Groups

News Flash! Decision of the IRS to revoke the tax exempt status of 275,000 tax exempt organizations. Yikes! That sounds like a lot of organizations. The reality is that the number is really not surprising.  Many Not-For-Profit (NPO) Tax-Exempt organizations are created by heart and soul people who have a vested interest to do some good in the world but simply fail to recognize how challenging if not daunting it is to (1) raise donations and (2) keep up with the regulatory requirements of running an NPO.

The old IRS law allowed NPO’s to not file a return if their gross receipts fell bellow a certain level. In 2006, the IRS changed the law and now all NPO’s must file a return, with the simplest form of return (990-N) being a very basic information return that essentially says, I am here, I am alive.  Of the 275,000 I suspect a few couldn’t manage that simple reporting as the IRS had given an extension of 5 months to accomplish the task and at that time 50,000 somehow managed to file a return.

There is an NPO for just about every imaginable and conceivable purpose. From saving trees or whales to helping the elderly and children to creating cultural diversity and sustaining art forms. In 2010 the IRS showed 1.8 million NPO’s. Of these roughly 66% were religious organizations.  I once heard that in Miami Dade and Broward counties there were some 8,000 NPO’s. All competing for donated funds and grants from other NPO’s and local, state and federal governments. Without question the work NPO’s perform enrich our lives in every conceivable way. This is because many NPO’s are very cost effective. One of the primary jobs of an NPO is to create administrative capacity through the work of community volunteers. These volunteers help run the organizations and are in fact the people that raise money, run the back office and even provide the programs and services NPO’s bring forward. If you think it’s hard to compete with third world wage levels try free labor!

NPO’s fill the gaps where government can not accomplish the task and puts money to work to serve the disadvantaged, to create a sense of community, to advance democracy through business leagues, social and recreation clubs. It supports education, the arts, healthcare and the homeless, just to name a few of the missions they carry out.  NPO’s are priceless organizations that form the fabric of the United States goodwill and span the globe.

Managing an NPO is a bit tricky. In fact it’s harder to run an NPO than it is a typical small or even medium sized business. There are a number of key considerations in simply forming an NPO.  In addition the management of any NPO organization is best accomplished not just by someone who has run a business before but, someone who specifically has experience with NPO’s. Firstly, there are a number of types of NPO’s, each with a distinct set of operating rules and even allowable deduction rules for those that donate funds. The accounting is more complex, and the tax returns are just as complex.

If you run an NPO, or are thinking of starting one. Get a qualified CPA or tax attorney that knows about NPO’s to advise you. If your heart and soul is tied to that NPO it’s not only to your advantage to do it right, but it also protects the credibility of every NPO that has an important mission to carry out.