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The vanished grandeur of accounting (bostonglobe.com)
118 points by chesterfield on June 23, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 52 comments

This is a really neat article, and I look forward to reading the book. The field of accounting really is a marvelous and, in current times, under-appreciated bedrock of civilization. In the course of certain matters, I have had the opportunity to work with forensic accountants, which is a field I did not know even existed. Basically, when $100 million disappears from a ledger, forensic accountants dive in and figure out what happened. It is incredible the kind of narrative, capturing a panoply of human behavior, that can emerge from digging through some spreadsheets and associated e-mail chains.

To analogize, imagine spelunking through git commits on a 10 MLOC project trying to figure out: "is someone trying to insert a backdoor? is someone just incompetent? is this just the predictable result of a death march?"

In practice, forensic accounting is roughly as interesting as archaeology. It makes for some great headlines in the end, but there is an enormous amount of detail and bureaucracy you have to dig through to get there.

> In practice, forensic accounting is roughly as interesting as archaeology. It makes for some great headlines in the end, but there is an enormous amount of detail and bureaucracy you have to dig through to get there.

Perhaps accountants and archeologists would say the same about coding.

Coding is a creative endeavor. In contrast, forensic accounting is more similar to reading code someone else wrote and trying to figure out what the hell they were thinking when they wrote it.

That's basically what I'm doing today. I'm trying to figure out what the hell that guy that originally wrote this codebase was thinking. (Probably something like "Oh hey, Ruby has this feature Java didn't have, let's use it in exactly the wrong way!")

You haven't been coding long enough if you hadn't had projects that consisted mostly of just that.

I've done almost nothing and I look at my code and wonder that. Yes, I'm doing it wrong.

Every creative endeavor is 1% of inspiration, followed by 99% or perspiration. That's the only way to manifest the pretty pictures inside your head onto a tangible medium that can reach others.

Creativity without hard, and often dull, work is called "Day dreaming".

Forensic accounting is to accounting what debugging Cobol is to coding, maybe?

You've just described my last three months.


There is also just weeding through to prove very blatant frauds, which can be forensic in nature, if payments are hidden in group company loans or sale and buy back deals, or discounting tax rebate incomes. I mean starting with a very obvious con, you still have to prove it. Currently a project if mine, in this way. Not huge, but close to twenty million dollar property fraud.

I suspect that's pretty well captured in the comparison to "spelunking through git commits on a 10 MLOC project". (I say "suspect" because I haven't actually done either, thank God)

You can use computers to do some of the digging:


I'm friends with a former state senator who's a forensic accountant. She used to read bills from back to front, because they put all the shenanigans in the back. They'd be written really obscurely, and time was always short, but she'd still catch stuff. One small example was public money going to fund a party at some senator's home. She wouldn't give either side a pass, which probably helps explain why she lost the support of her party and got voted out.

Later she ran for state auditor, so I did some campaigning for her. But she lost in the primary to a woman whose qualification consisted of some time on her local school board, but who talked tough and described herself as a "pistol-packin Mama."

This is a great article, because accounting is more than just the extremes of bean counting and fraud.

My wife is an accounting professor and teaches Theory of Accounting at the graduate level. That's where things get really interesting, because they tackle all the assumptions underlying our accounting systems. How do you account for fixed goods, costs in different sorts of manufacturing and sales models, various forms of compensation, ownership, subsidiaries, taxes, and how do you reconcile reporting requirements for each country, region, and municipality in which you do business, which all may have different rules, along with reporting rules for taxes, which are generally different still, and with your own internal reporting and analysis needs? Do you specify rules down to the letter (and allow tons of loopholes) or do you try to enforce the spirit of the regulations (and leave lots of wiggle room)? How does all this fit in with other legal requirements? How do you match it up to your business processes and IT systems? etc etc

There are tons of really interesting questions, problems, tradeoffs, and philosophy underlying the various accounting systems used throughout the world, and I'm always interested to hear the various topics she's working up lessons for at any given time. So this book sounds very fascinating along the same lines.

Sounds an absolute blast!

In South Africa, we suffer from the opposite problem: chartered accountants are fetishized in the business world, far more than MBAs even.

They dominate the leadership of big business and the CA(SA) designation, especially for a black African is a golden ticket to opportunity and a huge salary. Our youngest and brightest minds aspire to be accountants, rather than engineers. It may not be a coincidence that South African business is sometimes accused of having a lack of flair and imagination.

I started off at Wits University (Johannesburg, South Africa) aiming for a BCom Accounting, the path towards being a Chartered Accountant. It definitely was the path towards gold.

(And access to cutting edge technology, I remember a friend of mine showing me his new portable computer - in 1993ish, two black padded canvas bags, one containing an all-in-one Mac, the other a portable printer. It was the first time I saw a Mac.)

I was quickly disillusioned by the field, from high school days Accounting was something that appealed to my asperger-like tendencies - a mathematical model of a business, a true answer to the health of the business.

But in a university level it rapidly devolved into picking apart legal statute to find ways of tax avoidance. A game to hide as many debits into pseudo-equities like "Goodwill". That appalled me. I know tax avoidance is legal, but it conflicts with what I believe to be fair and acceptable. That only worsened when I started job interviewing with accounting firms, including Arthur Andersen.

When I see debacles like WorldCom and Enron, I'm not really surprised. And now, tax avoidance schemes like the Double Irish, and the Dutch Sandwich, I'm thankful I am not in that profession.

> But in a university level it rapidly devolved into picking apart legal statute to find ways of tax avoidance. A game to hide as many debits into pseudo-equities like "Goodwill". That appalled me. I know tax avoidance is legal, but it conflicts with what I believe to be fair and acceptable. That only worsened when I started job interviewing with accounting firms, including Arthur Andersen.

Why don't you use your skill to develop a taxation system for which you can formally prove that you can't do such sketchy tricks for tax avoidance? A kind of dual (in the sense of mathematical optimization) to accounting: If accounting is (among other things - of course) about finding dirty tricks in the taxation system for tax avoiding, co-accounting shall be about developing taxation systems where it shall be (formally provable) impossible to apply dirty tricks for tax avoidance.

Given the state of South Africa is a former dutch colony, that seems to align with the article's historical facts.

That's an interesting idea, but it could be a bit of a stretch. Dutch Boers, later called Afrikaners tended to aspire to be farmers, rather than merchants. In the last 65 years or so, Afrikaners did move into the big business world, but that was a nationalistic reaction to the economic dominance of English-speaking whites.

If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that the rise of the CA as CEO has to do with the complex conglomerates that were created during the apartheid era. Companies had limited expansion opportunities, so they'd use their capital in unrelated businesses. South African Breweries, for example owned a large supermarket chain. The focus on the bottom line in these complex conglomerates rather than a specific business was presumably a great fit for bean counters. And even though the era of great unfocused conglomerates has ended as expansion opportunities opened up when apartheid ended, CAs were deeply entrenched in the corporate world, and the phenomenon of CAs on top has continued.

As a counter argument out of all the C__ officers the accountant is most likely to actually understand the business. It's not uncommon for companies to focus on effectively irrelevant part's of their business.

>the accountant is most likely to actually understand the business

This is where conflicts arise... the accountant is most likely to know which parts of the business are currently generating profit but, depending on the business, may not be very adept at understanding why certain parts are more profitable or the longer-term position of the company within its markets.

You wouldn't want an accountant to be CEO of the typical software start-up, for example.

(I actually partly qualified as an ACA many moons ago before abandoning it...)

Chartered accountants are also much respected in the UK. It is a very common route to senior management, similar to legal qualifications or an MBA in the US.

The South African chartered accountant industry does, in fact, have its roots in the UK tradition: https://www.saica.co.za/About/SAICAHistory/tabid/70/language...

While I am certainly biased (CA) I can point out that a number of MBA graduates I have dealt with certainly weren't on the same level(In Business terms) as the CA's I have. Of course there are exceptions to any rule but I would argue that seeing as becoming a CA in South Africa is very difficult (7 years all in) it means something to actually have achieved it. Achieving the "same" qualification in many other commonwealth countries takes between 4 to 5 years.

You make a valid point though in terms of our business standing but I would argue that it is not entirely without merit. I attended a road show by UCT's Graduate School of Business once. I asked them their figures in terms of earning potential after graduating with an MBA and quickly realised that it wasn't any higher than that which I could earn as a CA. In many cases it was lower.

Saying that it is no coincidence that South African Business have a lack of flair is subjective to say the least. I would also like to point out that the JSE has out-performed it's international peers in dollar terms over the last few decades. This was certainly affected to some degree by these boring and unimaginative bean counters you so easily deride.

I know a lot of CAs (as well as people who failed at Honours and/or board exams), and they are very bright, and for the most part fairly interesting personally (and always sure to split the bill accurately). But for a bad matric accounting teacher, who put me off the field, I would probably have opted to study financial accounting as well, with a view to becoming a CA. Also there is no denying that South African corporate governance is very good, in large part due to CAs.

However, you may be confusing correlation with causation.[^] South African CAs are good at business because they are intelligent -as you point out they need to complete 7 years of grueling accounting theory and practice-not necessarily because they have the CA(SA) credential. They'd probably do just as well academically if they studied mathematics, computer science, biology, statistics or engineering. It's no coincidence that kids who are good at school mathematics are told to become chartered accountants in SA, since maths ability is a marker for intelligence. My main worry about accountants having a strong lobby, and accounting becoming the main route to megabucks in SA is that it devalues other professions and draws the brightest minds away from other fields - as you yourself point out ,a person with an undergraduate degree and an MBA is likely to make less money than a CA. Incidentally, I Googled this article that makes a similar argument: http://johanfourie.wordpress.com/2013/05/25/why-and-what-to-...

[^] Anecdotally, BCom statistics is viewed as one of the tougher courses at university by those who take it, but easy compared to the statistics done by science and engineering students (just yanking your chain here).

There's a gem of a quote in that article: "If Einstein was born in South Africa, he would probably have studied accounting. I’m not sure that he – or South Africa and the world at large – would have benefited much from such an arrangement."

I agree with your sentiment. As a profession it does attract the brightest in this country and not necessarily for the better. I was merely trying to point out that the trust placed in CA's in South Africa is not entirely misplaced. Some would argue that the rigorous education a CA receives in South Africa is at least on par with that of an MBA though possibly more narrow before the more recent changes.

In my opinion, arguing that the standing of CA's in South Africa devalues other professions is very much the same as the age old argument of business in general drawing the brightest minds away from academic subjects. People motivated by money will often choose the route more likely to result in more money. At this point it very quickly devolves into an argument about the current form of capitalism in this country (and the world) and how it incentivises the wrong things - an argument I'm definitely not qualified to have. Thankfully not everyone is motivated by money and there are still people out there willing to do what they love or are good at.

Accounting has always struck me as a field that is un-appreciated by the masses, but valued quite highly by those somewhat more in the know. For instance, a background in accounting is highly valued in investment banking.

For the most part the article was interesting. However one thing stood out to me:

To the audience of the time, the paintings carried a clear message: Mastering finance was an achievement requiring both skill and humility.

I don't know about humility. I mean having someone paint a portrait of you seems like hubris. Ensuring that the painting shows you wearing gold rings does not seem to indicate humility (modesty, humbleness).

Maybe the chosen painting is not necessary of painting from the period and the others indicated humility.

There is a wisdom here, lieing in the English name: accounting, to hold accountable, to reckon up the debts and mete out justly and rightly.

It's something worth pondering and considering it as a righteous practice.

The origin of the words "audit" and "auditor" is also interesting. The auditor would receive (listen to) the state of affairs/finances as described to him and then report that to his master.

My grandfather's New Year's Eve ritual was to do the accounting for the year (he was an inventor and business owner). Post Nazi era, he was an engineering professor at Texas Tech, and replaced the ritual by grading of papers. Precisely one year before I was born, when he was 80, he did that and then died in his sleep.

Hi, any peeps here who are accountants or in finance or just investors who read quarterly reports and earning statements/balance sheets for fun and profit in trading?

I used to do it for diversified biotech's with multiple earning dates after a FDA rejection where the market either dramatically discount or over-inflate the stock price over the book value/IP of the company.

I know peeps who are also valued investors who similarly do the same thing distressed assets after a scandal with a CEO or something where the market's valuation is incorrect when you do the cash flow projections, tangible assets etc.

Now I trade options based on volatility, so try not to do as much directional trading. But love to hear some of your guys' accounting wizardry in reading those balance sheets.

I don't always understand them, but I enjoy John Hempton's posts: http://brontecapital.blogspot.com

This comparison of double entry accounting and calculus may be interesting:


Accounting seems to something that is easy to offshore. Two companies I've worked at moved the low level accounting tasks to India and Macao respectively. Much of it is mechanical in nature and once the grunt work is done you can have someone local crosscheck it if needed.

OK, I don't know much about accounting, but offshoring apparently doesn’t work well for many software projects. I imagine accounting is the same. Certain types of work will be suitable, much won't.

You have a valid point but I wholeheartedly disagree.

There was a post on StackOverflow a while back where developers from different countries commented on the strengths/weaknesses of their home countries in the field of programming.

Many of the devs from India commented that the caste system had a huge influence on the types of people who become programmers. Essentially, many people from families in the higher classes go to school to learn programming because of the prospective earning potential and pressure from their families to succeed.

Many of the anecdotes mentioned projects that failed because the developers working offshore had a tendency to build the projects strictly to the specification. Despite the fact that the specification was incomplete or contained assumptions that were later discovered to be false. Ie they built what they were told to build, not what matched the 'real' requirements of the project.

The 'average' programmer there has little personal interest in the field and culturally they're more inclined to respect authority 'do as their told' not 'do what they think is right'.

A true measure of potential in a programmer can be seen in the willingness/ability to think and approach problems with a high degree of divergent thinking. To look beyond the rules/limitations of a system and discover novel solutions to their problems.

Accounting OTOH requires a very high degree of convergent thinking. Meaning, it's not only expected but absolutely vital for accountants to work within the bounds of the established laws/policies. There's a very fine line between creative accounting to increase the margins and cooking the books.

In cultures that put a lot of emphasis on respecting authority and doing what's expected, accounting may be a better fit culturally. Especially, compared to cultures that put less emphasis on authority and order.

That's not to say that there aren't talented/passionate programmers in those countries. There definitely are, they just may not be as prevalent as you or I may assume; for cultural reasons that we may not inherently understand.

The missing chapters might be found in the book by the author

The Reckoning


Considering that the invention of modern accounting was literally the driving force behind the renaissance, one has to wonder whether Dogecoin is going to be responsible for a similar reinvention of society.

>the invention of modern accounting was literally the driving force behind the renaissance //

Go on?

This would be perhaps more interesting with a contemporary angle. Has anything changed in the last 30 years?

Today, the internal ethics of accounting have receded from public view. No one publicly celebrates the virtues of balancing one’s books and of audits with great art or gripping characters. Occasionally an accounting hero emerges, bringing a billion-dollar loss to light, but few people appreciate it, as the Dutch did, as a profound moral advance in business and public affairs.

This ending is dissapointly shallow.

Here is the author on contemporary accounting issues


Today, the internal ethics of accounting have receded from public view.

That's one way of putting it.

Its not like it went from de Medici to Enron to Lehman without a little assistance.

There's a much more interesting story about the rise and fall of 'the prefession', hyper-specialization, commodification, diversification, conflicts of interest and the (predictable) things that ensue.

The fundamental innovation has long been commoditized. Yet there are also interesting lessons about the status that accrues to innovation, and the sociology of commoditized professionals. There are reasons why ethics have receded from public view and otherwise minimized.

But the seem to escape the author's intellectual grasp or go beyond the depth of his curiosity.

To be fair, some chapters may have been left (or edited) out of this summary. Perhaps they think the more historical parts are more interesting to the Globe's readers.

Perhaps every profession will be "commodified" eventually, but how do you assess accountants as compared to say, attorneys or physicians?

The reason its an interesting subject is that the professions (eg: law, accountancy, medicine) were initially set up exclude non-qualified practitioners for the purpose of limiting competition.

So, at its heart, the idea of being a 'professional' is not congruent with working in a state of pure-competition, in terms of the basic trade. The exclusionary structure of the professions was indeed a part of there allure.

This was justified in several ways for many years. But essentially the main justification(s) revolved around the concept of trust. A person needs to place fiduciary and/or implicit trust in his lawyer, his accountant, and his doctor. That is, he must divulge information to each professional which is sensitive--more specifically, it can be used to harm-- the client/provider of information in particular. To get the societal benefit of the professional services, it's crucial that such information flow occur, and that the client (or potential client) have his implicit trust maintained.

Since this is a complex-contracting problem at a game theory level, the practical way it was handled was by excluding a great many potential practictioners. Thus, the economic & social privledge was provided under the condition of self-policing to levels worth of such privledge. This is the origin of professional 'qualifications'.

So, the passing of the bar exam, or the medical school or financial charter examps, were the means to provide a structural gate of minimum quality and a throttle on maximum throughput re: competition from new entrants. This limitation on competition, not to mention the vulnerable negotiation dynamics (see: implicit trust), allowed the professions to negotiate "advantageously" free market rates for many years. This origin in political economy is critical to understandin the lucrative remuneration dynamics of the professions in a historical context.

So this at least paints the picture at a level which leads to some light shining down on a problem we have today.

(1) The professions are not at all suited (either culturally, or otherwise) to incorporate un-fettered levels of competition. In part this is mitigated by regulation; but other parts remain problematic. Its not just the issues around abuse of implicit trust. It also involves the sociology of "exclusivity" and how the cultural changes from commoditization make the concept of acting "professionally" problematic (either disadvantageous or otherwise prohibitively costly). However, the "professional" aspects of rendering "professional services" are critical to their value for greater society.

(2) The old ways of limiting competition are no longer capable of limiting competition. Nor providing the status boost that being (a lawyer, doctor, accountant) "professional" once had. The more obvious problem with this is the feedback loop with #1. The more subtle and vexing problem is how to solve this in a way that is consistent with "professionalism", whilst at the same time works from a broader perspective of political economy (ie, does good things broadly speaking for the structure of society, and the legal/health/busineess infrastructure that underpins basic civilization.

Hope that helps clarify a couple things.

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