In which the ‘exciting content’ meter hits a new low

Accounting isn’t a topic of wide general interest. Nonetheless, accounting professor Prem Sikka’s CIF piece on the International Accounting Standards Board is one of the more bizarre and surreal things that I’ve ever read.

The point of International Accounting Standards is to ensure comparability of accounts of companies that report their financial results in different geographies – so that you can be sure a company reporting €500,000 of profit before tax in Spain has actually generated the same returns as a company reporting the same figure in France.

The IASB’s role is to set these standards. Broadly, it does so by taking national Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) from across the world and to try and come up with acceptable ways of making them compatible.

Now, national GAAP is generally determined by a local industry body – in the UK, the accounting standards board. These are made up of accountants, unsurprisingly, and are usually funded by a levy on companies. This has broadly worked (yes, there’s been the occasional corporate disaster – but in nearly all cases, the company in question has deliberately broken the accounting rules in a way that audits have failed to detect, rather than publishing accounts that follow them).

You might, therefore, not be especially surprised to hear that IASB is run on a similar basis: trustees drawn from the Great and the Good of the global accounting profession (senior partners, academics, businesspeople with accounting backgrounds) appoint a board drawn from the Pretty Great And Good But Not Quite So Important of the global accounting profession.

You might, however, be slightly suprised to hear that Dr Sikka believes this is a terrible thing:

the IASB is not accountable to democratically-elected parliaments. Its members are not elected by stakeholders or any representative organisations. Neither is their suitability scrutinised by parliamentary committees.

Yes, what we really need in order to ensure the international comparability of financial statements is for every standard to be approved by a committee of MPs (nearly all of whom don’t have a financial background) in every single country of the world. That would be workable.

However, what really upsets Dr Sikka is that not only do investors want to see consistency between accounts across different countries in the developed world, they also feel that this ought to encompass the developing world. Some people even go as far as to suggest that imposing consistent accounting standards might reduce the incidence of corruption in the developing world, what with ‘bribes paid’ not being a recognised income statement entry under IAS and all…

This is part of new colonialism and ideological domination. Such imposition makes developing countries dependent on the west and prevents them from developing appropriate local institutional structures.

The only spin I can put on ‘appropriate local institutional structures’ that makes any sense whatsoever here is ‘allowing dodgy practices’. Seriously – I can’t think of a single way in which a developing economy would lose by adopting IAS compared with local standards, aside from short-term costs of transition. And nor does Dr Sikka cite one [*].

There are reasons why, and ways in which, it would be good to impose corporate social responsibility standards internationally. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the imposition of financial statements, any more than the technical standards behind DVDs impact on film criticism…

[*] some commenters mention ‘transfer pricing’ – e.g. manufacturing goods in a high-tax country and selling them at an artificially low price (generating an artificially low local profit) to a subsidiary in the low-tax country where you retail them. But IAS says you shouldn’t do that, and in any case tax accounts are separate from financial accounts – they are subject to tax agency rules, not accounting standards.

The system isn’t the problem

From the BBC website’s article on this year’s A-level results (yes, I know – we’re always first with the news here):

Twin sisters Tania and Mahua Bhaduri from West Malling, Kent, both got five grade As. But unlike her sister, Tania has not got a university place.

Their father, Dr Bim Bhaduri, said his daughter Tania… had been rejected from universities including Oxford, Bristol and Sheffield.
But Mahua, who studied almost the same A-levels as her sister at state foundation school Tonbridge Grammar for Girls – but took geography instead of psychology, has earned a place at Imperial College, London.

Dr Bhaduri added: “The system really is a lottery, they can’t differentiate between bright and brighter and this is a problem.

No: this is a sign of the system working admirably. One of your daughters took a subject which is not especially popular or fashionable at a university where it is not a specialist subject (to be honest, I was surprised to discover Imperial even offered geography); the other applied for a subject which is highly fashionable at prestigious institutions where the course is particularly respected.

(and Sheffield, which probably rejected her for also applying to Oxford and Bristol…)

Booze and weddings

I’ve got a new piece on the Sharpener, which I appear to have annexed (if anyone, especially Sharpener contributors, fancies contributing to the Sharpener, then by all means go ahead).

It’s about the latest bizarre Youth Gone Feral moral panic, and how we really shouldn’t worry about That Sort Of Thing. Also, if anyone tries to ban me from drinking wine in Regent’s Park, I’ll set them on fire. Not that there’s been all that much wine-drinking opportunity in Regent’s Park this summer, of course.

My main alternative recreational pursuit this summer has been going to weddings. I’m becoming convinced that most of my friends have decided to get married this summer purely to spite me, since it’s the first summer since 2001 that I’ve spent single. The obvious rejoinder is that I should look for prospective partners at said weddings – the problem there is that nearly everyone I’ve encountered there seems to be either married, engaged, over 60 or under 14. And not interested. Oh well, two more to go, only one of which is going to actually have my ex attending it.

That’s your lot; I’m off to drink wine outside the Tube station until feral youths shank me or Peter Fahy arrests me, whichever happens second…

NHS food ‘OK, considering’

From the Observer:

Of 377 National Health Service and private hospitals surveyed in England, 173 – 46 per cent – were found to have poor cleanliness in their kitchens, or canteens or cafes used by staff, patients and visitors. Nine of the 377 were private hospitals, of which six were found to have at least one area of concern.

So, 46% of NHS hospitals had food cleanliness problems, while 67% of private hospitals had the same problems? That’s +1 for the NHS, I reckon (not quite sure why Wat thinks otherwise.)

More importantly, the whole story is massively overblown. Only eight of the 377 hospitals inspected were found by health inspectors to have sufficiently serious problems to go onto a six-month inspection schedule – i.e. had real problems that might get them closed down if not addressed, rather than ticking the wrong boxes to meet vaguely nannyish rules. That’s a hell of a lot better than you’d get if you inspected 377 randomly selected food establishments…