Draining the Ambiguity Swamps

What are the odds we’ll get some real accounting reform out of the current corporate scandals? They’re pretty good.

After all, the financial reporting system hasn’t changed much at all since going public in the 1930s, the result of a couple of acts of Congress. Half of all Americans worked on farms in those days and the other half manufactured widgets.

Reform-minded accounting professionals have long recognized the need for better, broader measures of performance than just “quarterly earnings” or “cash flow” or even “ebitda,” meaning earnings before interest, taxes and depreciation allowance. Much of the intellectual spade-work has begun.

Powerful new technologies are at hand. Public companies soon will be able to track a broad array of yardsticks via the Web and disclose the information monthly, weekly, even daily.

So what is being billed in some quarters as “the current crisis in American capitalism” certainly will generate a sufficient impulse to reform. Exactly how it will unfolds politically is any pundit’s guess. But the inevitable result will be a post-industrial accounting system.

The new yardsticks won’t come from government. They’ll be devised instead by representatives of big companies that are anxious to regain public and governmental trust. They’ll be the work of standard boards, operating much like the many anonymous committees that built the Internet.

That’s the view of Robert G. Eccles, a classically-trained sociologist who has been following the accounting profession since the early 80s. In a series of books over the years, he has demonstrated a business intelligence of unusual clarity.

In The Transfer Pricing Problem in 1985, for example, Eccles showed how the rules that firms choose to account for internal transactions among their business units depend mainly on their strategies for growth.

Full cost? Market-based? Dual pricing? Exchange autonomy? The right answer depends on what managers are hoping to accomplish in rapidly-changing markets — for instance, whether they are vertically integrating or disintegrating. Whether they succeed depends in turn on whether they have located themselves on the correct analytical plane.

In Doing Deals, written in 1988 with Dwight Crane, Eccles gave an illuminating account of how investment bankers mediate the constantly changing and conflicting demands of their customers, buyers and sellers of securities alike.

In Beyond the Hype, written in 1992 with with Nitin Nohira and James Berkley, he surveyed the enormous literature of strategy, re-engineering and knowledge management, and ventured a sensible prescription. Corporate leadership meant both taking action in the world and making it meaningful, both collectively and individually, through clear and persuasive explanation. Think out loud, recommended Eccles.

Then, after 14 years at the Harvard Business School, he quit his tenured professorship and went into business for himself, advising those who were buying and selling companies. He consulted to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm. Despite his intention to leave the research world behind, he found himself drawn back to writing books.

Now, in Building Public Trust: The Future of Corporate Reporting, Eccles and PriceWaterhouseCoopers CEO Samuel A. DiPiazza have produced a manifesto on accounting reform that could almost be called sprightly — if it were about anything other than accounting. Certainly it is on the news

In fact, the new book is a slimmed-down and spruced-up version of a volume that appeared last year titled The ValueReporting Revolution, by Eccles and three others. That book was more cluttered with proprietary goals than the new one — the title itself was trademarked. Eccles is a PricewaterhouseCoopers Senior Fellow and his three co-authors are partners. But all are highly respected, inside the industry and out. And, thanks to Eccles, there’s the same remarkable clarity.

Their basic idea is that if accounting data are to be dependable and persuasive, they must go behind the veil of the capital markets to the product markets themselves. Continuous business reporting, or something like it, is feasible now, thanks to the Web.

If you knew how many cans of tuna fish have left the shelves, how many circuit-boards are accumulating in the warehouse, how far ahead of sales are expense accounts, it would be easy to ignore the reported earnings derby.

The “bottom-line” guessing game that favors day-trading and momentum investing would fade away, the authors say. The earnings estimates, pre-announcements, whisper numbers and meta-whisper numbers that drive the market now would be overwhelmed by real information. Volatility would decrease.

Value and growth investors would take over, scanning the abundant data to discern which companies were likely to succeed and which to fail over the next few years. Instead of rigidly seeking to control “inside” information, companies would release a continuous flow of it, a veritable flood, then join a world-wide conversation about the significance of the particular facts they wished to emphasize.

The vision of real-time performance data is hardly science fiction. Everyone knows about the fantastic financial/inventory management system that has made Wal-Mart the biggest retailer in the US. It will be expensive for companies of all sorts to develop similar integration software, he says, but they dare not fail to do so — for competitive reasons.

But would companies ever put all that internal information on-line? So much of it now is closely held on grounds of strategic advantage. That Macy’s doesn’t tell Gimbels is deeply imbued in our corporate culture. Eccles quotes a well-connected lawyer: “I have never met an analyst who would not welcome more information. I have never met a corporate controller who was ready to provide that additional information.”

Yet competitive pressure just may force the issue. Regardless of what governments require, companies may find it in their interests to disclose more and more information. A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey identified five major benefits of greater transparency. Companies enjoyed increased management credibility, attracted more long-term investors, enjoyed greater analyst following, raised new capital more easily and had higher share prices.

Eccles and his associates attach great importance to the advent of a dialect of the language that companies have been developing to manage their corporate supply chains. The language itself is known as XML, for Extensible Mark-up Language. It represents an important step beyond the platform that enabled the World Wide Web (Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML), in that it permits far more contextual information to be attached to each bit of data. Soon companies will be able to share vast quantities of information with their customers and suppliers.

The dialect of XML is known as Extensible Business Reporting Language, or XBRL. It will permit companies to share the same data with shareholders, regulators and tax authorities. A number of companies involved the development of the new language — financial services firms such as Fidelity and J.P. Morgan, high tech companies including IBM, Microsoft and Oracle — are already committed to reporting their results in XBRL.

At some point the emphasis will shift to the problem of identifying the yardsticks by which businesses can be appropriately judged and compared in a post-industrial age. In fact this effort has been going on for a decade — at least since Robert Kaplan of the Harvard Business School and David Norton published their famous call for a “balanced scorecard.”

In recent years, many additional aspects of value creation have come under the measurers’ lens: intellectual capital, supply chain management, political risk. Eventually accounting professionals will converge on set of measures appropriate for individual industries and groups of industries.

The groups that hammer out these standards of accountability, Eccles says, will proceed in much the same way as did Internet standards boards. A few leading companies in each industry will undertake as a group to study their shared accounting practices.

These out-of-the-spotlight consortia will work with investors, analysts, third party experts, non-governmental regulatory authorities such as the Financial Accounting Standards Board and, of course, the government itself to fill the information gaps and drain the ambiguity swamps. They’ll devise new and better standards and gradually adopt them. And they’ll shake their heads when they talk about the Old Days.

It is far from clear today how the corporate scandals will play out politically. President Bush has sought to toughen the penalties for misbehavior but otherwise maintain the self-regulatory structure of accounting. A bill sponsored by Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md) in the Senate envisages a tough new government supervisory body for the accountants. How about a Cabinet post, Secretary of Accounting?

It wouldn’t be the first time that crisis triggered a clampdown. That markets will continue to move in the direction of greater transparency, however, seems certain.