Do financial statements tell the truth?
Financial statements are often referred to as “reports”. As you scan the pages, you will find neat columns of precise numbers. Financial statements look objective. Looks can be deceiving. The questions that financial statements are intended to address do not have objectively true answers. Suppose a firm builds a factory, with custom-built machinery designed to specifically to produce the firm’s product. That factory would become an asset on the left-hand side of the balance sheet. How much is that asset worth? Often in this course we will emphasize “market value”. But our specialized equipment may not be usable by other firms, so if we tried to sell it in the market, it’d be valued as scrap, and would be worth a fraction of what we paid for it. (The salvage value of firm assets is referred to as liquidation value, and is usually far less than what appears on a balance sheet.) Alternatively, we could estimate the value we believe the equipment will ultimately provide to our business, which will be substantially higher than the price we paid for it. After all, we designed and built our machinery because we anticipate we can put it to profitable use. If we value the machinery at liquidation prices, we will take an immediate loss on our books when we buy the equipment, as cash on the books is exchanged for fancy high-tech robots that we treat as though it were scrap. The more we work to expand the capacity of our business, the less valuable our firm will appear to be. That doesn’t seem right. Conversely, if we use our best estimate of the revenues our purchase of the equipment will eventually enable, we will show an immediate gain on our books. (We would not have bought the stuff if we didn’t think it was going to generate more cash than it cost us.) However, even if our firm’s managers are honest and competent, allowing them to conjure instant profits with optimistic estimates of asset values might tempt corruption. Potential investors might be reluctant to rely on statements compiled this way. In the United States, firm assets are initially valued at “cost”. Very simply, we say an asset is worth whatever a firm paid for it. For our machinery, that value is almost certainly “wrong”: If our expansion works out as planned, the equipment will have been much more valuable than its cost, and if our expansion turns out poorly cost will have been an overoptimistic estimate. The great virtue of “historical cost” is not that it is a good estimate, but that it is objectively measurable. Accounting conventions seem to prefer objective, verifiable lies to subjective truths! Is that dumb? No, it’s not.
Uncertainty and bias are unavoidable in financial statements. Fortunately, the purpose of financial statements is not to whisper truth in God’s ear, but to inform human action. Since “truth” is not on the menu, long-term investors prefer that estimates be conservative. When you are going to put money on the line based on a bunch of numbers, you prefer any surprises to be to the upside. Plus, managers have incentives to overstate firm performance, because their compensation is performance-linked or because they wish to attract cheap financing. Historical cost accounting helps prevent self-serving optimism. On average, businesses do recoup more than the cost of the assets they purchase, so on average historical cost is conservative. US accounting conventions skew even further towards conservatism: Older assets are valued at the lower of depreciated historical cost or “market value”. But market value often can’t be known without a sale. So managers are allowed to use subjective estimates to “write down” assets, but they are generally forbidden from estimating values higher than cost. Again, this asymmetrical policy is not designed to render accounting statements accurate, but to render their distortions less harmful. The deeper we examine them, we find that accounting statements look less like...
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