Qualitative Characteristics of Conceptual Framework

These lectures cover CPA questions covering qualitative characteristics of conceptual framework such as completeness, comparability, consistency and verification.

Qualitative Characteristics of Useful Financial Information

The FASB identified the qualitative characteristics of the conceptual framework of accounting; the characteristics of accounting information that distinguish better (more useful) information from inferior (less useful) information for decision-making purposes. The primary qualitative characteristics are relevance and faithful representation. of accounting information that distinguish better (more useful) information from inferior (less useful) information for decision-making purposes.

Qualitative characteristics are either fundamental or enhancing, depending on how they affect the decision-usefulness of information. Regardless of classification, each qualitative characteristic contributes to the decision-usefulness of financial reporting information. However, providing useful financial information is limited by a constraint on financial reporting—cost should not exceed the benefits of a reporting practice.

Fundamental Quality—Relevance

Relevance is one of the two fundamental qualities that make accounting information useful for decision-making. Relevance and related ingredients of this fundamental quality are shown below.

To have relevance, accounting information must be capable of making a difference in a decision. Information with no bearing on a decision is irrelevant. Financial information is capable of making a difference when it has predictive value, confirmatory value, or both.

Relevant information also helps users confirm or correct prior expectations; it has confirmatory value. For example, when UPS issues its year-end financial statements, it confirms or changes past (or present) expectations based on previous evaluations. It follows that predictive value and confirmatory value are interrelated. For example, information about the current level and structure of UPS’s assets and liabilities helps users predict its ability to take advantage of opportunities and to react to adverse situations. The same information helps to confirm or correct users’ past predictions about that ability.

Materiality is a company-specific aspect of relevance. Information is material if omitting it or misstating it could influence decisions that users make on the basis of the reported financial information. An individual company determines whether information is material because both the nature and/or magnitude of the item(s) to which the information relates must be considered in the context of an individual company’s financial report. Information is immaterial, and therefore irrelevant, if it would have no impact on a decision-maker. In short, it must make a difference or a company need not report it.

Assessing materiality is one of the more challenging aspects of accounting because it requires evaluating both the relative size and importance of an item. However, it is difficult to provide firm guidelines in judging when a given item is or is not material. Materiality varies both with relative amount and with relative importance.

Fundamental Quality—Faithful Representation

Faithful representation is the second fundamental quality that makes accounting information useful for decision-making. Faithful representation and related ingredients of this fundamental quality are shown below.

Faithful representation means that the numbers and descriptions match what really existed or happened. Faithful representation is a necessity because most users have neither the time nor the expertise to evaluate the factual content of the information. For example, if General Motors‘ income statement reports sales of $180,300 million when it had sales of $155,399 million, then the statement fails to faithfully represent the proper sales amount. To be a faithful representation, information must be complete, neutral, and free of material error.

Completeness.

Completeness means that all the information that is necessary for faithful representation is provided. An omission can cause information to be false or misleading and thus not be helpful to the users of financial reports.

Neutrality.

Neutrality means that a company cannot select information to favor one set of interested parties over another. Unbiased information must be the overriding consideration. For example, in the notes to financial statements, tobacco companies such as R.J. Reynolds should not suppress information about the numerous lawsuits that have been filed because of tobacco-related health concerns—even though such disclosure is damaging to the company.Neutrality in rule-making has come under increasing attack. Some argue that the FASB should not issue pronouncements that cause undesirable economic effects on an industry or company. We disagree. Accounting rules (and the standard-setting process) must be free from bias, or we will no longer have credible financial statements. Without credible financial statements, individuals will no longer use this information. An analogy demonstrates the point: Many individuals bet on boxing matches because such contests are assumed not to be fixed. But nobody bets on wrestling matches. Why? Because the public assumes that wrestling matches are rigged. If financial information is biased (rigged), the public will lose confidence and no longer use it.

Free from Error.

An information item that is free from error will be a more accurate (faithful) representation of a financial item.

Enhancing Qualities

Enhancing qualitative characteristics are complementary to the fundamental qualitative characteristics. These characteristics distinguish more-useful information from less-useful information. Enhancing characteristics, shown below, are comparability, verifiability, timeliness, and understandability.

Comparability.

Information that is measured and reported in a similar manner for different companies is considered comparable. Comparability enables users to identify the real similarities and differences in economic events between companies. For example, historically the accounting for pensions in Japan differed from that in the United States. In Japan, companies generally recorded little or no charge to income for these costs. U.S. companies recorded pension cost as incurred. As a result, it is difficult to compare and evaluate the financial results of Toyota or Honda to General Motors or Ford. Investors can only make valid evaluations if comparable information is available.Another type of comparability, consistency, is present when a company applies the same accounting treatment to similar events, from period to period. Through such application, the company shows consistent use of accounting standards. The idea of consistency does not mean, however, that companies cannot switch from one accounting method to another. A company can change methods, but it must first demonstrate that the newly adopted method is preferable to the old. If approved, the company must then disclose the nature and effect of the accounting change, as well as the justification for it, in the financial statements for the period in which it made the change. When a change in accounting principles occurs, the auditor generally refers to it in an explanatory paragraph of the audit report. This paragraph identifies the nature of the change and refers the reader to the note in the financial statements that discusses the change in detail.

Verifiability.

Verifiability occurs when independent measurers, using the same methods, obtain similar results. Verifiability occurs in the following situations.

  • 1.Two independent auditors count PepsiCo‘s inventory and arrive at the same physical quantity amount for inventory. Verification of an amount for an asset therefore can occur by simply counting the inventory (referred to as direct verification).
  • 2.Two independent auditors compute PepsiCo’s inventory value at the end of the year using the FIFO method of inventory valuation. Verification may occur by checking the inputs (quantity and costs) and recalculating the outputs (ending inventory value) using the same accounting convention or methodology (referred to as indirect verification).

Timeliness.

Timeliness means having information available to decision-makers before it loses its capacity to influence decisions. Having relevant information available sooner can enhance its capacity to influence decisions. A lack of timeliness, on the other hand, can rob information of its usefulness. For example, if Dell waited to report its interim results until nine months after the period, the information would be much less useful for decision-making purposes.

Understandability.

Decision-makers vary widely in the types of decisions they make, how they make decisions, the information they already possess or can obtain from other sources, and their ability to process the information. For information to be useful, there must be a connection (linkage) between these users and the decisions they make. This link, understandability, is the quality of information that lets reasonably informed users see its significance. Understandability is enhanced when information is classified, characterized, and presented clearly and concisely.For example, assume that Google issues a three-months’ report that shows interim earnings have declined significantly. This interim report provides relevant and faithfully represented information for decision-making purposes. Some users, upon reading the report, decide to sell their shares. Other users, however, do not understand the report’s content and significance. They are surprised when Google declares a smaller year-end dividend and the share price declines. Thus, although Google presented highly relevant information that was a faithful representation, it was useless to those who did not understand it.

Thus, users of financial reports are assumed to have a reasonable knowledge of business and economic activities. In making decisions, users also should review and analyze the information with reasonable diligence. Information that is relevant and faithfully represented should not be excluded from financial reports solely because it is too complex or difficult for some users to understand without assistance.