Managerial Application: Spaceship Lost Because Two Mea- sures Used

Managerial Application: Spaceship Lost Because Two Mea- sures Used

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Introduction 7

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Interestingly, a survey of large U.S. firms found that managers typically use the same accounting procedures for both external and internal reporting. More than 80 percent of chief financial officers (CFOs) report using the same accounting methods and report the same earnings internally and externally. In other words, most firms use “one number” for both external and internal communications. One CFO stated, “We make sure that every- thing that we have underneath—in terms of the detailed reporting—also rolls up basically to the same story that we’ve told externally.”5 Nothing prevents firms from using separate accounting systems for internal decision making and internal performance evaluation except the confusion generated and the extra data processing costs.

Probably the most important reason firms use a single accounting system is it allows reclassification of the data. An accounting system does not present a single, bottom-line num- ber, such as the “cost of publishing this textbook.” Rather, the system reports the components of the total cost of this textbook: the costs of proofreading, typesetting, paper, binding, cover, and so on. Managers in the firm then reclassify the information on the basis of different attri- butes and derive different cost numbers for different decisions. For example, if the publisher is considering translating this book into Chinese, not all the components used in calculating the U.S. costs are relevant. The Chinese edition might be printed on different paper stock with a different cover. The point is, a single accounting system usually offers enough flexibility for managers to reclassify, recombine, and reorganize the data for multiple purposes.

A single internal accounting system requires the firm to make trade-offs. A system that is best for performance measurement and control is unlikely to be the best for decision making. It’s like configuring a motorcycle for both off-road and on-road racing: Riders on bikes designed for both racing conditions probably won’t beat riders on specialized bikes designed for just one type of racing surface. Wherever a single accounting system exists, additional analyses arise. Managers making decisions find the accounting system less useful and devise other systems to augment the accounting numbers for decision-making purposes.

5Dichev, I.D., Graham, J.R., Campbell, H., and Rajgopal, S., 2013. “Earnings quality: evidence from the field,” Journal of Accounting and Economics, 56 (2–3), pp. 1–33.

“. . . cost accounting has a number of functions, calling for different, if not inconsistent, information. As a result, if cost accounting sets out, determined to discover what the cost of everything is and convinced in advance that there is one figure which can be found and which will furnish exactly the information which is desired for every pos- sible purpose, it will necessarily fail, because there is no such figure. If it finds a figure which is right for some purposes it must necessarily be wrong for others.” SOURCE: J. Clark, Studies in the Economics of Overhead Cost. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1923), p. 234.

Historical Application: Different Costs for Different Purposes

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