Double Entry Bookkeeping, Trial Balance, Financial Statements, Financial Ratios, Italian City-States and Capitalism

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 8th, 2013

History 101

The Government Finances are a Train Wreck because they have the Power to Tax and to Print Money

President Obama averaged a deficit of $1.3 trillion for each of his first 4 years in office.  Bringing the national debt up to $16.4 trillion at the end of 2012.  And there will be another drop-down, drag-out fight to raise the debt limit in a couple of months.  Why does the government spend this kind of money?  Because they can.  And because they can they can buy a lot of votes by giving stuff away.  Stuff paid for with all of that spending.

When the government implemented Social Security and Medicare there was still an expanding birthrate.  More people were entering the workforce than were leaving it.  Providing an ever expanding tax base.  And a rising level of tax revenue.  Without ever having to increase tax rates.  And the smart government planners thought the good times would just keep rolling.  But they didn’t.  Thanks to birth control and abortion.  Which reversed the equation.  The population growth rate slowed down.  Fewer people entered the workforce than left it.  Resulting in a declining tax base.  And falling tax revenue.  Pushing Social Security and Medicare to the brink of bankruptcy.

The government finances are a train wreck.  And they keep digging their hole deeper.  Because they can.  For they have the power to tax.  And to print money.  Something private businesses can’t do.  Which is why few corporations’ finances are train wrecks.  Except those with unionized workforces with defined-benefit pension plans.  Something long discontinued by most in the private sector.  As it’s a failed economic model.  Just like Social Security.  And Medicare.  Over time more people move from being contributors to being beneficiaries.  Pushing defined-benefit pension plans, too, to the brink of bankruptcy.

At the End of each Accounting Period they run a Trial Balance to Verify the Total of Debits Equals the Total of Credits

The difference between private sector businesses and the federal government is that private sector businesses have to be responsible while the federal government does not.  The federal government focuses on what’s politically expedient.  While private sector businesses must focus on the bottom line.  Spending only the money they have.  Because they can’t tax or print money to fix their messes.  Like the government can.  And does.  A lot.  So they have to avoid making messes in the first place.  They can’t kick the can down the road.  Because in the private sector there is accountability.  And that accountability begins with getting their hands around their business numbers.  So they can understand what their businesses are doing.  And when it’s time to take appropriate actions.  To prevent a financial train wreck.  And it all begins with double-entry bookkeeping.

Double-entry bookkeeping includes debits and credits.  Each transaction is posted to the accounting records with at least one debit and at least one credit.  The dollar amount of debits equals the dollar amounts of credits.  If they don’t equal after recording a transaction they were posted incorrectly.  For example, when someone pays cash for something at a retail store there are two debits and two credits to post.  First we debit cash $20 and credit sales revenue $20.  Then we debit cost of goods sold $18 (the cost of the item sold) and credit inventory $18 (the cost of the item in inventory).   If posted correctly the total debits equal $38.  And the total credits equal $38.  If, for example, someone debited sales revenue instead of crediting sales revenue the total debits would equal $58 while the total credits would equal $18.  Because they don’t balance we know something was posted incorrectly.  And can go back, find the error and correct it.

A business accounts for every penny that flows through their business.  Each accounting period will have thousands of such entries.  And at the end of each accounting period they will run a trial balance to verify that the total of debits equals the total of credits.  When they do they can be pretty sure that the financial information they recorded fairly represent the financial activity of the business at the end of that accounting period.  Then they prepare the financial statements (the income statement, the balance sheet, the statement of cash flows and the statement of retained earnings and stockholders’ equity).  Businesses study these statements to assess the health of their businesses.  They calculate financial ratios to assess the liquidity, long-term debt-paying ability and profitability of the business.  As well as calculate ratios for investor analysis.  To make sure they are satisfying the owners of the company.  The stockholders.

The First Use of Double-Entry Bookkeeping dates back to the Italian City-States of Florence, Genoa and Venice

This is a lot of valuable information.  Courtesy of that double-entry bookkeeping.  Something that can be so mundane and mind-numbing at the data entry point.  Especially if you’re trying to figure out why your trial balance doesn’t balance.  But when it does balance.  And the financial information is fairly represented.  Business owners and managers can make informed decisions to avoid doing what our federal government does.  Including making the hard decisions that permit these businesses stay in business for a decade or more.  Even a century or more.  Thanks to merchant banking.  And the Italian city-states.

For those of you who hate bookkeeping blame the Italians.  Some of the Florentines were using it as early as the 13th century.  The Genoese were using it shortly thereafter.  Soon Florence, Genoa and Venice were using double-entry bookkeeping.  This mastering of economic data made these city-states the dominant economic powers of the Mediterranean.  Making them masters of trade.  And merchant banking.  To manage that trade.  This system of accounting even made it into textbooks in the late 1400s.  Helping to spread good business practices.  Where they were picked up by other great traders.  The Europeans.

With double-entry bookkeeping businesses were able to grow.  First with the help of government.  Mercantilism.  Then without.  Free market capitalism.  Which created the British Empire.  And gave us the Industrial Revolution.  Then the United States came into their own in the late 19th century.  And surpassed the British Empire.  Economic activity exploded in the United States.  Because they were able to get their hands around all of those financial numbers.  And thanks to free market capitalism they focused on the bottom line.  And made the necessary decisions.  No matter how painful they were.  Something that the federal government just can’t do.  Because those decisions aren’t politically expedient.

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Trend Analysis – Liquidity

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 7th, 2013

Economics 101

Liquidity can be More Important than Profitability to a Small Business Owner

Small business owners lose a lot of sleep worrying if they will have enough cash for tomorrow.  For next week.  For next month.  You can increase sales and add new customers but unless this creates cash those new sales and new customers may cause more problems than they help.  For a lot of businesses fail because they run out of cash.  Often times learning they have a cash problem only when they don’t have the cash to pay their bills.  So savvy business owners study their financial statements each quarter.  Even each month.  Looking for signs of trouble BEFORE they don’t have the cash to pay their bills.

Investors poor over corporations’ financial statements to make wise investment decisions.  Crunching a lot of numbers.  Analyzing a myriad of financial ratios.  Gleaning a lot of useful information buried in the raw numbers on the financial statements.  Small business owners analyze their financial statements, too.  But not quite to the extent of these investors.  They may look at some key numbers.  Focusing more on liquidity than profitability.  For profits are nice.  But profits aren’t cash.  As a lot of things have to happen before those profits turn into cash.  If they turn into cash.  The following are some balance sheet and income statement accounts.  Following these accounts are some calculations based on the values of these accounts.  With four quarters of data shown.

So what do these numbers say about this year of business activity?  Well, the business was profitable in all four quarters.  And rather profitable at that.  Which is good.  But what about that all important cash?  With each successive quarter the business had a lower cash balance.  That’s not as good as those profitability numbers.  And what about accounts receivable and inventory?  There seems to be some large changes in these accounts.  Are these changes good or bad?  What about accounts payable?  Accrued expenses?  Current portion of long-term debt?  These all went up.  What does this mean in the grand scheme of things?  Looking at these numbers individually doesn’t provide much information.  But when you do a little math with them you can get a little more information out of them.

In Trend Analysis a Downward sloping Current Ratio indicates a Potential Liquidity Problem

Current assets are cash or things that a business can convert into cash within the next 12 months.  Current liabilities are things a business has to pay within the next 12 months.  Current assets, then, are the resources you have to pay your current liabilities.  The relationship between current assets and current liabilities is a very important one.  Dividing current assets by current liabilities gives you the current ratio.  If it’s greater than one you are solvent.  You can meet your current financial obligations.  If it’s less than one you will simply run out of current resources before you met all of your current liabilities.  In our example this business has been solvent for all 4 quarters of the year.

Days’ sales in receivables is one way to see how your customers are paying their credit purchases.  The smaller this number the faster they are paying their bills.  The larger the number the slower they are paying their bills.  And the slower they pay their bills the longer it takes to convert your sales into cash.  Days’ sales in inventory tells you how many days of inventory you have based on your inventory balance and the cost of that inventory.  The smaller this number the faster things are moving out of inventory in new sales.  The larger this number is the slower things are moving out of inventory to reflect a decline in sales.  These individual numbers by themselves don’t provide a lot of information for the small business owner.  Big corporations can compare these numbers with similar businesses to see how they stack up against the competition.  Something not really available to small businesses.  But they can look at the trend of these numbers in their own business and gain very valuable information.

The above chart shows the 4-quarter trend in three important liquidity numbers.  Days’ sales in receivables increased after the second quarter upward for two consecutive quarters.  Indicating customers have paid their bills slower in each of the last two quarters.  Days’ sales in inventory showed a similar uptick in the last two quarters.  Indicating a slowdown in sales.  Both of these trends are concerning.  For it means accounts receivable are bringing in less cash to the business.  And inventory is consuming more of what cash there is.  Which are both red flags that a business may soon run short of cash.  Something the three quarters of falling current ratio confirm.  This business is in trouble.  Despite the good profitability numbers.  The downward sloping current ratio indicates a potential liquidity problem.  If things continue as they are now in another 2 quarters or so the business will become insolvent.  So a business owner knows to start taking action now to conserve cash before he or she runs out of it in another 2 quarters.

Keynesian Stimulus Spending can give a Business a Current Ratio trending towards Insolvency

In fact, this business was already having cash problems.  The outstanding balance in accounts payable increased over 100% in these four quarters.  Not having the cash to pay the bills the business paid their bills slower and the balance in outstanding accounts payable rose.  Substantially.  As the cash balance fell the business owner began borrowing money.  As indicated by the increasing amounts under current portion of long-term debt and interest expense.  Which would suggest substantial borrowings.  Putting all of these things together and you can get a picture of what happened at this business over the past year.  Which started out well.  Then experienced a burst of growth.  But that growth disappeared by the 3rd quarter.  When sales revenue began a 2-quarter decline.

Something happened to cause a surge in sales in the second quarter.  Something the owner apparently thought would last and made investments to increase production to meet that increased demand.  Perhaps hiring new people.  And/or buying new production equipment.  Explaining all of that borrowing.  And that inventory buildup.  But whatever caused that surge in sales did not last.  Leaving this business owner with excess production filling his or her inventory with unsold goods.  And the rise in days’ sales in receivables indicates that this business is not the only business dealing with a decline in sales.  Suggesting an economic recession as everyone is paying their bills slower.

So what could explain this?  A Keynesian stimulus.  Such as those checks sent out by George W. Bush to stimulate economic activity.  Which they did.  Explaining this sales surge.  But a Keynesian stimulus is only temporary.  Once that money is spent things go right back to where they were before the stimulus.  Unfortunately, this business owner thought the stimulus resulted in real economic activity and invested to expand the business.  Leaving this owner with excess production, bulging inventories, aging accounts receivable and a disappearing cash balance.  And a current ratio trending towards insolvency.  Which is why Keynesian stimulus spending does not work.  Most businesses know it is temporary and don’t hire or expand during this economic ‘pump priming’.  While those that do risk insolvency.  And bankruptcy.

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Accounting Shenanigans

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 13th, 2012

Economics 101

Two Important Accounting Principles are the Realization Principle and the Matching Principle

Accounting isn’t exciting.  It’s dull.  And tedious.  Anyone who struggled to get a trial balance to balance knows this well.  But accounting is a necessary tedious.  Someone has to put those numbers into the proper accounts.  Correctly.  Down to the penny.  Because only then can you prepare financial statements that are useful to business owners.  As well as investors.

When we post these numbers correctly we can produce the income statement.  Or as some call it the profit and loss statement.  Or P&L.   Which tells you whether you made a profit or a loss for an accounting period.  And some of the most important accounts on the income statement are income accounts (or revenue accounts).  The money they get when they sell their goods or services.  And expense accounts.  But not all expense accounts.  They’re all important but some are particularly important.  The expenses used to specifically generate that revenue (the cost of sales).  Production labor.  Production material.  The labor and material that make the things a business sells.  These expenses are variable.  They go up and down with sales.  As opposed to fixed overhead.  Which remains the same regardless of sales.

We have to define the accounting period carefully.  It can be annually.  Quarterly.  Even monthly.  The smaller the period the more useful information for business owners.  Investors study a company’s quarterly statements.  As well as annual statements.  The shorter the accounting period, though, the more careful the posting to the accounts is.  Because of two accounting principles.  The Realization Principle.  And the Matching Principle.   Which places revenue into the accounting period it occurs.  And then matches the expenses to the revenue it created into the same accounting period.  So when you subtract expenses from revenue in that accounting period you get the gross profit for that accounting period.  Given a measure of how business was during that accounting period.  If business was good there is revenue remaining after subtracting all variable expenses and all fixed expenses.  If sales are down there may be a gross profit.  But there may not be enough left over to pay the fixed overhead costs.  Resulting in a business loss.  For that accounting period.

The Smaller the Accounting Period the Greater the Math required to apportion Revenues and Expenses

When businesses ‘cook’ their books they are making business results look differently from what they actually are.  Perhaps the most common way to ‘cook’ the books is to violate the Realization Principle and Matching Principle.  Such as moving revenue or expenses to other accounting periods instead of where they belong.  If a business needs better business results for investors they may realize revenue early.  Or push expenses out to a subsequent accounting period.  Thereby increasing profitability for the one period better than it actually is.  As revenue will be greater and expenses will be smaller.

As an example consider a now common summer business model.  Selling ice-cold water at traffic intersections.  You need some cases of bottled water.  Ice.  And a cooler.  If you buy all the water in July but sell some of it in August you have to split the expense of the water between these two months.  If you don’t your expenses will exceed your revenue in July because it includes water purchased for both July and August.  You would subtract two months of water expense from one month of water sales.  Making July business show an operating loss.  While August would subtract no water expense from August sales making August more profitable than it actually was.  However, if you combine the two months together there will be no misrepresentation of the accounting data.  As you would subtract two months of water expenses from two months of water revenue.

This is why larger accounting periods are easier to post.  As they get smaller you have to do a lot of math to apportion these revenues and expenses into the proper accounting periods.  And sometimes mistakes happen.  Honest mistakes.  A business could have felt they had a good month but their income statement shows a loss.  Or the month could be far better than you feel it should be.  If you look hard enough you can often find a timing error.  Revenues or expenses appearing in the wrong period.  Such as recording a down payment as revenue.  It’s not.  A down payment is a liability.  Because it is a prepayment for you something owe someone at a later date.  And it’s at that later date when you can realize that down payment as revenue.

As you Pull Revenue Up and Push Expenses Out each Subsequent Accounting Period Starts with a Larger Operating Loss

But some businesses cook their books.  And once they start it becomes more difficult with every accounting period.  Which is why most companies that do cook their books fail.  And they fail big.  Here’s why.  If you realize revenue early in this period instead of next period (where it belongs) the following accounting period will underreport revenue.  Worse, the expenses to produce that revenue are still in that period.  When you subtract the properly reported expenses from the underreported revenue it will result in an operating loss.  Unless they cook the books in the following period, too.  By pulling revenue into that period from another period.  Or pushing out expenses to a later period.

The problem is when you keep doing this it makes the following accounting period more difficult to ‘fix’.  For as you pull revenue up and push expenses out each subsequent accounting period starts with a larger operating loss.  And if a business is having problems (which they typically do when they start cooking their books) actual revenue for that period will be depressed as well.  So as they go through subsequent accounting periods beginning operating deficits grow larger in the face of falling revenues.  To keep the scam going they have to take it up a notch.  Taking things ‘off balance sheet’ (basically ignoring some bad financial information).  Creating a shell company to dump bad financial data on.  And other accounting shenanigans.  The bigger the scam, though, the harder the fall.  And there is always a fall.  Think Enron.  And WorldCom.

But it’s just not businesses that cook their books.  Government does, too.  Especially when they want to pass unpopular and costly programs.  They will send the financial data for a program to the Congressional Budget Office to score.  To determine the cost over a 10 year period.  But to make the program less expensive and more palatable to the taxpayers they will cook that data.  Their bill may include new taxes over the ten year period.  But benefits may kick in a few years after the new taxes start.  So you may have 10 years of taxes paying for only 8 years of benefits.  But everyone thinks it’s 10 years of benefits.  Making the program appear less costly than it actually is.  Of course when they get caught in their accounting shenanigans nothing happens.  They just say, “Oops.  We goofed.  Shucks.  Looks like we’ll have to raise taxes.”  Not quite the same thing that happens in the private sector.  Just ask those who were running Enron.  And WorldCom.

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