The need for and an understanding of a conceptual framework
This topic forms most of Section A (and has an influence on Section B) of the syllabus for Paper F7, Financial Reporting. A conceptual framework is important to the understanding of the many principles and concepts that underpin International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) and is an often-neglected part of candidates’ studies. Questions from these areas regularly appear in Paper F7 exams – usually as Question 4 – and I often comment in my examiner’s report that they are the least well-answered question in the exam paper; the questions also have a high incidence of candidates not attempting them at all. This article is intended to illustrate the relevance and importance of this topic. What is a conceptual framework? In a broad sense a conceptual framework can be seen as an attempt to define the nature and purpose of accounting. A conceptual framework must consider the theoretical and conceptual issues surrounding financial reporting and form a coherent and consistent foundation that will underpin the development of accounting standards. It is not surprising that early writings on this subject were mainly from academics. Conceptual frameworks can apply to many disciplines, but when specifically related to financial reporting, a conceptual framework can be seen as a statement of generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) that form a frame of reference for the evaluation of existing practices and the development of new ones. As the purpose of financial reporting is to provide useful information as a basis for economic decision making, a conceptual framework will form a theoretical basis for determining how transactions should be measured (historical value or current value) and reported – ie how they are presented or communicated to users. Some accountants have questioned whether a conceptual framework is necessary in order to produce reliable financial statements. Past history of standard setting bodies throughout the world tells us it is. In the absence of a conceptual framework, accounting standards were often produced that had serious defects – that is: • they were not consistent with each other particularly in the role of prudence versus accruals/matching • they were also internally inconsistent and often the effect of the transaction on the statement of financial position was considered more important than its effect on income the statement
© 2011 ACCA
THE NEED FOR AND AN UNDERSTANDING OF A CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK OCTOBER 2011
standards were produced on a ‘fire fighting’ approach, often reacting to a corporate scandal or failure, rather than being proactive in determining best policy. Some standard setting bodies were biased in their composition (ie not fairly representative of all user groups) and this influenced the quality and direction of standards the same theoretical issues were revisited many times in successive standards – for example, does a transaction give rise to an asset (research and development expenditure) or liability (environmental provisions)?
It could be argued that the lack of a conceptual framework led to a proliferation of ‘rules-based’ accounting systems whose main objective is that the treatment of all accounting transactions should be dealt with by detailed specific rules or requirements. Such a system is very prescriptive and inflexible, but has the attraction of financial statements being more comparable and consistent. By contrast, the availability of a conceptual framework could lead to ‘principles-based’ system whereby accounting standards are developed from an agreed conceptual basis with specific objectives. This brings us to the International Accounting Standards Board’s (IASB) The Conceptual Framework for Financial Reporting (the Framework), which is in essence the IASB’s interpretation of a conceptual...