Truthful top lines
New global rules aim to make it harder for firms to fib about their revenues
WHEN companies should recognise revenues on their books is one of the most contentious and consequential issues in the staid profession of accounting. For simple sales of goods the timing is usually straightforward, but in the areas of services and long-term contracts it gets murky fast. Companies may manipulate the “top line” of their accounts—their revenues—say, by booking sales they are not yet sure of (to boost their reported profits) or not booking sales that they are certain of.
In Britain the controversy surfaced again after HP's takeover of Autonomy in 2011. The American firm later took a big write-down on its purchase, blaming it in part on the British software firm having pumped up its reported revenues by counting expected subscription fees as current sales .
Revenue recognition is perhaps the biggest headache for investors trying to compare companies in different countries. The GAAP standard used in the United States is Byzantine, with more than 100 different protocols for various permutations of transactions and industries, whereas the IFRS rules applied in most of the rest of the world offer only broad guidance.
Following 12 years of consultation, on May 28th the boards that control the two accounting systems released a new joint standard they hope will put these issues to rest. Scheduled to take effect in 2017, it represents a neat middle ground, adopting the IFRS's principle of one size to fit all industries, but with GAAP-style clarity. It spells out how companies will have to break down sales contracts into their component obligations and allocate the total value among them, estimating the worth of any variable fees they expect, like performance bonuses. Firms will then recognise the revenue assigned to each individual element as it is completed.
The biggest impact will be felt in industries that rely on bundled product-plus-service contracts, such as software and telecoms. In the 1990s Microsoft was accused of “cookie-jar accounting”, holding back revenue so as to recognise it during weak quarters, to smooth its reported earnings. The Securities and Exchange Commission filed an administrative action against the company that was later settled. Some rival software firms took the opposite approach, booking all the proceeds from sales immediately, even if they were required to offer support or upgrades in the future.
Regulators responded by bringing in the highly prescriptive accounting standards that software firms rue to this day, which make it hard to offer customers tailored packages of discounts and upgrades without falling foul of the rules. The abolition of such industry-specific rules should give software firms more flexibility to negotiate contracts. Mobile-phone operators will henceforth book the stand-alone value of handsets upfront, even when they are providing these free as part of a bundled contract. Verizon, America's largest mobile operator, estimates that under the new model its wireless division's reported profit margin would have been six to nine percentage points higher in 2011.
For investors in America, the risk of switching from the rigid “rules-based” GAAP method to the IFRS's “principles-based” approach is that unscrupulous companies will enjoy more leeway to mislead them. The new system tries to compensate for this flexibility by beefing up disclosure requirements: footnotes to financial statements will have to give detailed information about sales arrangements, so that readers can assess any questionable judgment calls.
The creation of a global rule on revenues is the biggest success yet in a decades-long effort to standardise company accounts worldwide. It may not prevent the next Enron, but it will make it easier for investors to judge companies, while helping multinationals cut compliance costs.