Revenue Recognition and closing the reporting GAAP
One company earns what the other company spends. This is business, and it seems like it would be pretty straightforward, accounting for the money coming in and the money going out. But it is really not that simple when it comes to business finances and accounting for revenue. With investor pressure to improve share prices and market pressures forcing greater competition, businesses have always sought out ways to make the performance look as good as possible – on paper even if not in reality. It is this requirement to make the business look better than it may actually be that drives “innovation” in financial reporting, and encourages some companies to use whatever rules are available to mislead investors or paint a rosy picture for stakeholders. When the balance is lost and financial reporting standards become so oblique as to allow regular and gross misrepresentation, it is time to change the standards.
There are numerous instances of fraud and scandal reported from the finance departments of big businesses, but instances of improper or misleading revenue recognition can happen in even the smallest of companies, and not necessarily on purpose. It is important to understand that properly and accurately reporting business revenue and earnings isn’t done just for investor satisfaction, it is an essential part of describing business performance that any owner or manager must be able to rely on.
Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) provide investors and business owners with some consistency in the financial statements they use to analyze company performance, but only minimally. This is partly due to the fact that GAAP is based not only on some standards established by policy boards (the authoritative standards) but also on “generally accepted” standards, which are often not really standards at all but simply past practice that was found to be accepted. Especially in the global economy where fewer businesses operate solely within traditional territorial boundaries – and where accepted reporting methods vary widely – having a single financial reporting standard has become more important than ever.
Make it so, Number One.
Now there are new rules from FASB (Financial Accounting Standards Board) and IASB (International Accounting Standards Board) which provide clear and detailed guidance for how businesses recognize revenues. These rules are based on a consistently applied set of principles, no matter what sort of business is involved and regardless of where the business is located.
A focus of the new rules of revenue recognition centers on customer contracts, delving into the details of how earnings from those agreements should be recorded. Consider that many businesses combine multiple products and services into a single agreement, even though there may be several deliverables or milestones included. This method of booking customer contracts allowed companies to report revenues they were not yet due as part of a total agreement, often resulting with inflated earnings reports. Stakeholders would perceive that the company had reached one earning threshold, but the reality was something quite different and performance expectations were unmet.
“FASB and the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) issued converged guidance on recognizing revenue in contracts with customers. The new guidance is a major achievement in the Boards’ joint efforts to improve this important area of financial reporting.” http://www.fasb.org/jsp/FASB/Page/BridgePage&cid=1351027207987
The new rules force an additional level of discussion, including a full set of disclosure requirements that will provide more information about contracts with customers. Businesses must identify each promised deliverable and attached revenue or earning component, which helps to better understand how the revenue may be earned (and recognized) as the business performs on the various obligations to the customer.
Just take a look at some big ERP companies and the lawsuits generated from problems and failures in delivery – problems that might have been more clearly identified to investors and stakeholders if the tie between product sales and services to be performed were more clearly described. In many cases, these situations exemplify the revenue recognition reporting problem, where large customer contracts and license sales were fully booked and recognized even though implementation services milestones attached to those license sales remained undelivered.
“2010 – JDA Software (i2) – Dillard’s, Inc.: Dillard’s had alleged i2 failed to meet obligations regarding two software-license agreements for which the department-store operator had paid $8 million.” http://www.zdnet.com/blog/projectfailures/erp-train-wrecks-failures-and-lawsuits/12055
For private companies, reporting periods beginning after December 15, 2017 must follow the new guidance. It may seem like a long period of time – from the decision to apply the new rules to the effective date – but the number of businesses the new rules will impact is large. The FASB made a decision to delay the effective date because of the broad scope of organizations affected and “the potentially significant effect that a change in revenue recognition has on other financial statement line items.”
Business owners and their accounting professionals need to make sure that financial systems and processes are up to the task and can track and produce the detailed reporting these new rules require. For investors and analysts, the new reporting rules and detailed information they generate will go a long way towards minimizing the impact of innovative revenue reporting practices, and will hopefully bring a new level of believability and usefulness to business financial reports.