Archives For ACCA

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By Gillian Fawcett, head of public sector, ACCA

The consequences of the 2008 financial crisis continue to play out and have led governments across the globe to reassess the delivery of public services in an age of prolonged austerity.

However, the outlook in the accountancy sector remains positive with developments showing that the profession is coming up with innovative solutions to meet the needs of public financial management.

ACCA’s recent paper Breaking out: public audit in a post-crash world shows that efforts are being put forth by numerous governments around the world to address the challenges surrounding public audit.

Contributors from Scotland to Bhutan, Australia to Jamaica, offer their perspectives on what has worked, what could be improved and what should be considered in this important area going forward.

The reports’ contributors highlighted certain areas of best practice and different approaches such as in Canada, where chief audit executives are now required to hold an internal audit designation. They also have a direct and exclusive reporting relationship with the deputy minister in their department. This change, quite early on, demonstrates the strategic role accountants are playing.

All the essays highlighted the importance of early intervention in saving money on big projects, particularly where governments outsource public services. Important lessons can, and should be, learnt from the crisis; there was clearly a systemic failure in both the private sector and the public sector to properly account for risk, and more must be done to account for this in the future.

All the contributors were in agreement that better financial reporting and risk management results in better decision making.

ACCA will be hosting a roundtable discussion at the end of April to look at these issues. Being held at the Palace of Westminster, the event will feature participation from the Rt. Hon Margaret Hodge MP, who will offer her insights about what Government should be doing to ensure public finances are not only properly managed, but that the right systems are in place to avoid costly mistakes.

Some of the key questions to be considered at the event will include: Are short-term cost saving exercises storing up long-term failures in accountability? Is there a case for auditors to be involved much earlier on in significant public procurement projects, particularly when considering the National Audit Office estimates the UK central government spends £40bn with third parties, if so what needs to change? Should private companies undergo the same audit rigor as their public sector counterparts? And, considering the increasing fragmentation of public service delivery, are there enough checks and balances in the system for parliament to follow the money?

Radical change is taking place across the UK government and public sector. In part it is being driven by the need to recover the public finances, an objective shared by all major political parties. As spending is set to fall by more than one fifth in real terms from 2009/10 to 2017/18, we must ensure resources are allocated to scrutiny. The government must take bold decisions about where to allocate funding therefore, resources for proper scrutiny must be a priority.

What this publication demonstrates is that despite the varying systems, there is a DNA which runs through all parliamentary public account committees and audit systems.

Five years on from the crash, there are positive conversations about how we can achieve more with less.

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By Jason Piper, technical manager, tax and business law, ACCA

To listen to some commentators, you’d think that the news agenda was about to burst from an oversaturation of tax stories. The tax affairs of politicians and filmstars are making domestic headlines around the world, while the activities of multinational companies have prompted consumer action from New York to New Zealand. It seems that internet and technology companies are as likely to hit the headlines for their tax policies as for the latest product or design breakthrough. Buying a cup of coffee can be as much a political statement as an expression of tastes, and the agenda for global conferences of heads of government is as likely to address tax policy as it is trade agreements or human rights.

Some tax practitioners are perhaps a little bemused by all the attention. After all, tax has always been important hasn’t it? Whether the state’s tax take is 8% or 48% of GDP, some things must be done centrally. It’s inevitable in any kind of organised economy that an element of surplus will need to be appropriated and redistributed for the common good so surely the approach of taxpayers to their relationship with the state and society has always been important?

There are some key factors which have brought things to a head. Firstly, there’s the economic pressure brought to bear on governments by the post-GFC world. Politicians need to be seen to be doing something if they are to command public support, and vilification of tax scofflaws ticks a lot of the right boxes. It’s not necessarily the most cost-effective way of improving public finances, but it’s certainly a popular one. If governments want to spend money, first they must collect it, and the determined abusive avoidance of their legal responsibilities by a minority of taxpayers and advisers gets in the way of that. It’s a fair target for responsible and measured action by the authorities.

Secondly, there’s a wider recognition that outside of any single tax system sits the web of global trade inhabited by multinational corporations. Unlike tax systems, which stick to rigidly defined legal and territorial boundaries, businesses can have the choice of where to operate, which rules to put themselves under, and how to account for themselves. The set of rules which the nations agreed on to try to govern the taxation of international trade were mostly set out in the 1920s, a world before containerisation, the executive jet and the internet. Goods, people and information are mobile in a way that the creators of the old system could never have envisaged, and that brings challenges for tax systems and their designers, resolution of which have been brought to a head by the pressures of the GFC.

Everyone involved in the operation of taxes has a role to play in the reform and rehabilitation of the system. Tax is more than just a bill to pay, it’s an integral part of how society works. And the same can be said of business – re-allocation of the productive surplus of society and aggregation of capital is what takes us beyond a subsistence society and gives us the scope to do things together that we could never do as individuals. But still every company is ultimately influenced by, and influences, individuals and the choices they make. The contribution that a business’s activities make to the tax system and society as a whole cannot be disentangled, and as the mantra of corporate social responsibility sweeps the world, so a responsible attitude to tax is a fundamental part of good corporate behaviour.

Carrying those good intentions into practice relies upon buy-in from management, advisers and stakeholders. Owners and employees are affected alike by corporate attitudes to tax, and can influence them for good or ill. ACCA thinks its members should approach tax responsibly, setting out clearly the rules of the system, highlighting the key features and opportunities, the main risks and downsides. And system designers have a part to play. Trust and good faith are a two-way process, and if taxpayers resent the system or the way it is applied then they are less likely to engage positively with it. Different countries have different needs from their tax systems, and different capacities to operate them .But the principles should be the same the world over, for taxpayers, for their advisers, and for the authorities charged with designing and operating the systems. By working together for a common cause, on common grounds, we can build a far better regime.

Read ACCA’s Global policy on taxation of companies: principles and practices for more insight.

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By Eric Tracey, investor, Governance for Owners

An integrated and individual approach to risk reporting is the key to helping investors make the right decisions.

When I read about a company’s strategy and objectives I want to read about risk as well. You can have higher and lower risk strategies depending on what you are trying to do but risk is inherent: what you want to see is how two companies that do ostensibly similar things are going about, or might go about, them in a way that is different, and that’s what you want to understand.

I want to read about what the directors are really worrying about – not something that is just made up for the annual report.

The great challenge in all reporting is that it gets taken over by advisers. They either make it all very bland or alternatively put everything in but the kitchen sink, in which case it becomes completely useless. That’s the biggest threat to good risk reporting.

Risk reporting should contain a certain amount of policy, but it’s more about what’s changed than what carries on from year-to -year.

What you want people do each year is not to quite start from a blank sheet of paper, but it’s important to say this is what we’ve done this year. Reporting needs to be in the past tense – if it just becomes a whole series of policy statements then it frankly becomes pretty meaningless.

I am also not impressed when issues of commercial sensitivity are used as a barrier to risk reporting.

It’s a fantastic smokescreen to hide all sorts of things and I don’t give it much credence at all. You ought to be able to describe your risks to the business without giving away something that you should keep secret. It’s precisely because it’s sensitive that something should be reported to shareholders.

Where the law limits what can be said, looking forward, there is still a lot that can be said about the company’s approach to risk and who is managing it.

If I saw something that said risk is the responsibility of the audit and risk committee, I’d be more wary than if a company told me that risk is the primary responsibility of the CEO and the management team. Those would be quite different statements.

Similarly a company’s risk appetite can be better communicated by talking about what the company actually does and is revealed in the decisions the company makes. It is reflected in the exposures taken, and whether you are comfortable with them and if the return you are getting is acceptable.

What’s important is that this risk appetite and approach is reflected right through the business all the way up.

In good companies that’s what they try to do – they say, this is how we do what we do, this is how we approach risk, now let’s write that story. So you don’t have these enormous exposures that the board is not fully aware of, which is clearly what happened in the financial crash, when there would have been people somewhere in the banks who understood the risks.

I want to get a clear understanding of regulatory risks and how these are shaped by the various financial control authorities around the world.  More standardisation of the reporting of risk around the world would in theory be a good thing, but the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

While you can’t object to standardised international reporting, you don’t want to say you want everyone to be in the same place before you do anything.

As far as frequency goes, I am fine with ‘proper annual reporting’. If you do anything other than that you can overload people with information so that they can’t cope or use it in any way. You need to know what’s going on but the shareholder can’t cope if it’s every quarter or every six months – that’s too often and encourages short-termism.

Risk is the “core of capitalism” and developing an adequate understanding of it is an “interesting challenge.”

Does the growth of risk reporting make organisations more risk averse? Possibly, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. You can have an adequate discussion of risk without beating the hell out of any entrepreneurial spirits.

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By Dr Carol A Adams FCCA, member of ACCA’s Global Forum on Sustainability

If you are confused about what integrated reporting is, rest assured you are not the only one.

A lot of people think it’s about putting together your financial and sustainability reports. Wrong. It is much more than that – and much less. It will not replace either a financial or sustainability report – both must be in place for integrated reporting. But starting to think about the connections between the financials, the relationships your organisation has with its key stakeholders and how it makes use of natural resources, for a start, is a step in the right direction.

Integrated reporting requires thinking about ‘value’ beyond financial terms – a long overdue development given that around 80% of the value of company is typically in intangible assets.

Building strong relationships with stakeholders, building a loyal customer base, developing intellectual capital and managing environmental risks, etc, tend to fall off the radar when corporate execs think short-term. But they are critical to long-term success. Integrated reporting keeps the focus on long-term strategy and integrated reports are forward-looking documents covering strategy, the context in which it will be delivered and how the company has, and will, create value for providers of capital and others in the short, medium and long-term. The International <IR> Framework recognises that long-term success depends, amongst other things, on sound management, relationships, a satisfied workforce and the availability of natural resources.

Much of the information companies are providing to investors is not in their annual review or financial statements – further evidence of the need for change. An integrated report fills some of the gap and allows an organisation to tell providers of capital, and others, how it creates value for them.

If you asked your colleagues how they would describe your business model would they have the same view as you? Probably not. Many corporate execs think about their business model in narrow financial terms or from the perspective about the bit of the business they are responsible for. But if the senior exec work together in conceptualising the business model and start to think about inputs and outcomes in broader terms, a different picture about what needs to be managed and what adds value emerges.

The six capitals concept is intended to facilitate this broader thinking about value and the business model. ACCA has been at the forefront of its development coordinating the work of the IIRC’s Technical Collaboration Group on the capitals and funding my involvement.

Some companies are taking a first step towards integrated reporting by getting their financial and sustainability people working together. This is advantageous in that accountants could better understand social and environmental risks and their impact on reputation and the bottom line whilst sustainability teams need to develop skills in making a business case for their work. But the integrated thinking that goes behind integrated reporting needs to involve all the senior execs. And the Board.

If you would like to know more about integrated reporting, see some examples of good reporting practice and speak with some peers about the challenges and benefits, register for the Master Class in London on 14 March hosted by ACCA. You will hear from Eileen Rae, Director-Finance, ACCA and Jonathan Labrey, Communications Director at the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC). Eileen will discuss the preparation of ACCA’s second integrated report. A copy of
of my book Understanding Integrated Reporting: the concise guide to integrated thinking and the future of corporate reporting will also be given.

Jamie Lyon

By Jamie Lyon, head of corporate sector, ACCA

To my eternal dismay I don’t really get much time on the iPad these days. I don’t have to look far, however to find where it is – invariably it’s in the clutches of either my seven year old daughter (worrying), or my three year old boy (worrying, but for different reasons). Their relationship with this sort of technology however seems very intuitive, dare I say almost hardwired. Technology will be even more coded into their future daily existence, probably beyond the realms we can imagine right now. It’s fascinating to watch, and it’s an extraordinary time to be alive.

Today’s rate of advancement in technology is exponential but I can’t help but think the technology we are becoming accustomed to in our private lives isn’t quite reflected in our business lives. There is no greater example of this than what’s been happening (or not happening) in corporate finance organisations over the last decade or so. If the finance organisation is serious about driving value and supporting the business in its strategic imperatives, one of the things it has to get serious about is the technology it has at its disposal. I don’t, however, subscribe to the view that technology is the panacea to all of finance’s problems, the one-stop solution to deliver the sorts of financial and operational insights the business is crying out for… but it would be naïve to underplay its growing importance, particularly with the digitisation agenda.

So what’s stopping finance technology delivering on its promise? The obvious one is investment costs and multiple legacy ERP systems not being fit for purpose; too much manual workaround, too much time trying to get to the number rather than understanding and explaining to the business the implication of the number. Where we have seen investment in finance technology, typically the investment is focused on streamlining and driving down cost, rather than investing in the sorts of capabilities that are predictive and insightful. But there are arguably other issues too. Has finance shown the necessary finance leadership in the technology agenda? Does it truly understand and can it explain the business case for finance technology investment? Does a typical finance function “culture” present challenges to really embrace the opportunities that technology provides? Is it because finance is too risk averse? Why isn’t it adopting the cloud much? Is the payback on technology that creates insight rather than headcount reduction just too hard to quantify? Is it a capability issue with finance playing “catch up” on the skills it needs to make technology truly deliver?

Lots of questions, not many answers. We explore all of these issues and more in ACCA’s latest CFO report Is finance function technology delivering on its promise? 

I’ll leave with you a final thought – I think the corporate insight agenda offers CFOs and the finance organisation a great opportunity for internal influence and moving the dial on the corporate reputation of the finance department. I also think embracing and making the case for technology and tools is essential to achieving this. My observation is this: if finance doesn’t take this opportunity to lead the insight agenda, perhaps someone else will…

This blogpost first featured in CFO World, February 2014