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Keeping The Books
Why can our government use accounting methods that would put any publicly held company out of business?
September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
Many publicly traded companies did not release figures at all, and even when a railroad did issue a report, a contemporary wrote, it was “often a very blind document and the average shareholder … generally gives up before he begins.” The Erie Railroad, for instance, because some of its many bond issues were backed by New York State, was required to file an annual report with Albany. But it could frame that report pretty much as it chose. The managers of the Erie, perhaps the most mismanaged major railroad the world has ever known, had no hesitation in using very creative accounting indeed to hide their own shenanigans.
But The Commercial and Financial Chronicle , the Barron’s of its day, put its finger on the problem and foretold its solution. “The one condition of success in such intrigues,” it noted, “is secrecy. Secure to the public at large the opportunity of knowing all that a director can know of the value and prospects of his own stock, and the occupation of the ‘speculative director’ is gone. … The full balance sheet … showing the sources and amounts of its revenues, the disposition made of every dollar, the earnings of its property, the expenses of working, of supplies, of new construction, and of repairs, the amount and form of its debt, and the disposition made of all its funds, ought to be made up and published every quarter.”
Today quarterly and annual reports are so much a part of the capitalist world that it is hard to imagine that only 125 years ago they were a brandnew idea. But Wall Street immediately realized how important such reports could be in evaluating securities. Henry Clews, a very influential broker in the post-Civil War era, led the push for both regular reports and independent accountants to certify them. The great Wall Street banks that were becoming more and more vital to the new industrial corporations joined him, as did the New York Stock Exchange. The managers did not like the idea, of course, but if they wanted to raise capital or have their securities listed, they had little choice.
The largest fiscal entity on earth still keeps its books the way you and I keep our checkbooks.
In the 1880s, as the American economy industrialized at a furious pace, the number of independent accountants greatly increased. In 1884 there were only 81 accountants listed in the city directories of New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Just five years later there were 322. And these accountants were beginning to organize. In 1887 the American Association of Public Acccountants came into being, the ancestor of today’s main governing body of the profession.
In 1896 New York State passed legislation establishing the legal basis of the profession and, incidentally, using the phrase Certified Public Accountant for the first time to designate those who met the criteria of the law. The legislation, and the phrase, were quickly copied by the other states.
But government was largely unaffected by the revolution in accountancy that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. The federal government did not even have a formal budget process until 1922. And all federal accounting is still oriented toward preventing fraud and theft, not toward controlling costs. To this day the government makes no attempt even to determine the overhead of any of its vast array of departments, bureaus, and agencies.
And the United States government, the largest fiscal entity on earth, still doesn’t use double-entry bookkeeping. It keeps its books the way you and I keep our checkbooks: single entry and on a cash basis. One of the Western world’s great intellectual achievements—modern accountancy—is virtually unheard of in Washington, D.C., as is the one device—independent certifying accountants—that assures honest books.
Will independent accountants and GAAP come to Washington soon? Well, given human nature, only if the “shareholders” insist that the “managers” give up the power to keep the books as they please.
Again, look at New York State. In 1976, when New York City teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, nearly the first thing the state government did before helping to bail it out was insist that the city adhere to GAAP in its future bookkeeping. But did the state government impose GAAP on itself while it was at it? Of course not. If it had, it couldn’t have sold a prison to itself fifteen years later and called it income.