Business, Legal & Accounting Glossary
Documents presenting accounting information which is expected to have a useful purpose.
Financial statements (or financial reports) are formal records of a business’ financial activities. These statements provide an overview of a business’ profitability and financial condition in both short and long term. There are four basic financial statements:
For large corporations, these statements are often complex and may include an extensive set of notes to the financial statements and management discussion and analysis. The notes typically describe each item on the balance sheet, income statement and cash flow statement in further detail. Notes to financial statements are considered an integral part of the financial statements.
“The objective of financial statements is to provide information about the financial strength, performance and changes in the financial position of an enterprise that is useful to a wide range of users in making economic decisions.” Financial statements should be understandable, relevant, reliable and comparable. Reported assets, liabilities and equity are directly related to an organization’s financial position. Reported income and expenses are directly related to an organization’s financial performance.
Financial statements are intended to be understandable by readers who have “a reasonable knowledge of business and economic activities and accounting and who are willing to study the information diligently.”
Financial statements are used by a diverse group of parties, both inside and outside a business. Generally, these users are:
1. Internal Users: are owners, managers, employees and other parties who are directly connected with a company.
2. External Users: are potential investors, banks, government agencies and other parties who are outside the business but need financial information about the business for a diverse number of reasons.
The rules for the recording, measurement and presentation of government financial statements may be different from those required for business and even for non-profit organizations. They may use either of two accounting methods: accrual accounting, or cash accounting, or a combination of the two. A complete set of chart of accounts is also used that is substantially different from the chart of a profit-oriented business.
Although the legal statutes may differ from country to country, an audit of financial statements are usually, but not exclusively required for investment, financing, and tax purposes. These are usually performed by independent accountants or auditing firms. Results of the audit are summarized in an audit report that either provides an unqualified opinion on the financial statements or qualifications as to its fairness and accuracy. The audit opinion on the financial statements is usually included in the annual report.
There has been much legal debate over who an auditor is liable to. Since audit reports tend to be addressed to the current shareholders, it is commonly thought that they owe a legal duty of care to them. But this may not be the case as determined by common law precedent. In Canada, auditors are liable only to investors using a prospectus to buy shares in the primary market. In the United Kingdom, they have been held liable to potential investors when the auditor was aware of the potential investor and how they would use the information in the financial statements. Nowadays auditors tend to include in their report liability restricting language, discouraging anyone other than the addressees of their report from relying on it. Liability is an important issue: in the UK, for example, auditors have unlimited liability.
In the United States, especially in the post-Enron era, there has been substantial concern about the accuracy of financial statements. Corporate officers (the chief executive officer (CEO) and chief financial officer (CFO)) are personally liable for attesting that financial statements “do not contain any untrue statement of a material fact or omit to state a material fact necessary to make the statements made, in light of the circumstances under which such statements were made, not misleading with respect to the period covered by th[e] report”. Making or certifying misleading financial statements exposes the people involved, to substantial civil and criminal liability. For example, Bernie Ebbers (former CEO of WorldCom) was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison for allowing WorldCom’s revenues to be overstated by $11 billion over five years.
Different countries have developed their own accounting principles over time, making international comparisons of companies difficult. To ensure uniformity and comparability between financial statements prepared by different companies, a set of guidelines and rules are used. Commonly referred to as Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), these set of guidelines provide the basis in the preparation of financial statements.
Recently there has been a push towards standardizing accounting rules made by the International Accounting Standards Board (“IASB”). IASB develops International Financial Reporting Standards that have been adopted by Australia, Canada and the European Union (for publicly quoted companies only), are under consideration in South Africa and other countries. The United States Federal Accounting Standards Board has made a commitment to converge the U.S. GAAP and IFRS over time.
To entice new investors, most public companies assemble their financial statements on fine paper with pleasing graphics and photos in an annual report to shareholders, attempting to capture the excitement and culture of the organization in a “marketing brochure” of sorts. Usually, the company’s chief executive will write a letter to shareholders, describing management’s performance and the company’s financial highlights.
In the United States, prior to the advent of the internet, the annual report is considered the most effective way for corporations to communicate with individual shareholders. Blue-chip companies went to great expense to produce and mail out attractive annual reports to every shareholder. The annual report was often prepared in the style of a coffee table book.
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This glossary post was last updated: 23rd April, 2020 | 19 Views.