Cutoffs: What counts in 2020 vs. 2021

As year end approaches, it’s a good idea for calendar-year entities to review the guidelines for recognizing revenue and expenses. There are specific rules regarding accounting cutoffs under U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). Strict observance of these rules is generally the safest game plan.

The basics

Companies that follow GAAP must use the accrual method of accounting, not the cash method. That means revenues and expenses must be matched to the periods in which they were earned or incurred. The end of the period serves as a “cutoff” for recognizing revenue and expenses. For a calendar-year business, the cutoff is December 31.

However, some companies may be tempted to play timing games to lower taxes or boost financial results. The temptation might be especially high in 2020, as many companies struggle during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now or later

Test your understanding of the cutoff rules with these two hypothetical situations:

  1. As of December 31, a calendar-year, accrual-basis auto dealership has verbally negotiated a deal on an SUV. But the customer hasn’t yet signed all the paperwork. Should the sale be reported in 2020 or 2021?
  2. On December 30, a calendar-year, accrual-basis retailer pays its rent bill for January. Rent is due on the first day of the month. Can the store deduct the extra month’s rent in 2020 to help lower its tax bill?

In both examples, the transactions should be reported in 2021, not 2020. In the first example, even if the customer takes the car home for the weekend, it doesn’t matter; there’s still the possibility the customer could back out of the deal. The dealership can’t report the transaction in 2020 revenue until the customer has signed the paperwork and paid for the vehicle with cash or financing.

Audit procedures

If your financial statements are audited, your CPA will enforce strict cutoff rules — and likely reverse any items that were reported inaccurately. Audit procedures may include reviewing customer contracts and returns reported near year end. Auditors also may compare expenses as a percentage of revenues from period to period to identify timing errors. And they may vouch expenses to invoices and contracts for accuracy.

It never reflects favorably — in the eyes of investor or lenders — when auditors adjust year-end financial statements for inaccurate observation of cutoffs. Don’t give cause for others to wonder about your operations.

Timing is critical

Contact us if you need help understanding the rules on when to record revenue or expenses. We can help you comply with the rules and minimize financial statement adjustments during your audit.

© 2020

Put your company’s financial statements to work for you

1. Benchmarking

Historical financial statements can be used to evaluate the company’s current performance vs. past performance or industry norms. A comprehensive benchmarking study includes the following elements:

Size. This is usually in terms of annual revenue, total assets or market share.

Growth. This shows how much the company’s size has changed from previous periods.

Liquidity. Working capital ratios help assess how easily assets can be converted into cash and whether current assets are sufficient to cover current liabilities.

Profitability. This section evaluates whether the business is making money from operations — before considering changes in working capital accounts, investments in capital expenditures and financing activities.

Turnover. Such ratios as total asset turnover (revenue divided by total assets) or inventory turnover (cost of sales divided by inventory) show how effectively the company manages its assets.

Leverage. This refers to how the company finances its operations — through debt or equity. Each has pros and cons.

No universal benchmarks apply to all types of businesses. So, it’s important to seek data sorted by industry, size and geographic location, if possible. To understand what’s normal for businesses like yours, consider such sources as trade journals, conventions or local roundtable meetings. Your accountant can also provide access to benchmarking studies they use during audits, reviews and consulting engagements.

2. Forecasting

Historical financial statements also may serve as the starting point for forecasting, which is a critical part of strategic planning. Comprehensive business plans include forecasted balance sheets, income statements and statements of cash flows.

Many items in your forecasts will be derived from revenue. For example, variable expenses and working capital accounts are often assumed to grow in tandem with revenue. Other items, such as rent and management salaries, are fixed over the short run. These items may need to increase in steps over the long run. For example, if a company is currently at (or near) full capacity, it may eventually need to expand its factory or purchase equipment to grow.

By tracking sources and uses of cash on the forecasted statement of cash flows, management can identify when cash shortfalls might happen and plan how to make up the difference. For example, the company might need to draw on its line of credit, lay off workers, reduce inventory levels or improve its collections. In turn, these changes will flow through to the company’s forecasted balance sheet.

For more information

Let’s take your financial statements to the next level! We can help you benchmark your company’s performance and create forecasts from your year-end financial statements.

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Year-end SWOT analysis can uncover risks

As your company plans for the coming year, management should assess your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. A SWOT analysis identifies what you’re doing right (and wrong) and what outside forces could impact performance in a positive (or negative) manner. A current assessment may be particularly insightful, because market conditions have changed significantly during the year — and some changes may be permanent.

Inventorying strengths and weaknesses

Start your analysis by identifying internal strengths and weaknesses keeping in mind the customer’s perspective. Strengths represent potential areas for boosting revenues and building value, including core competencies and competitive advantages. Examples might include a strong brand or an exceptional sales team.

It’s important to unearth the source of each strength. When strengths are largely tied to people, rather than the business itself, consider what might happen if a key person suddenly left the business. To offset key person risks, consider purchasing life insurance policies on key people, initiating noncompete agreements and implementing a formal succession plan.

Alternatively, weaknesses represent potential risks and should be minimized or eliminated. They might include low employee morale, weak internal controls, unreliable quality or a location with poor accessibility. Often weaknesses are evaluated relative to the company’s competitors.

Anticipating opportunities and threats

The next part of a SWOT analysis looks externally at what’s happening in the industry, economy and regulatory environment. Opportunities are favorable external conditions that could increase revenues and value if the company acts on them before its competitors do.

Threats are unfavorable conditions that might prevent your company from achieving its goals. They might come from the economy, technological changes, competition and government regulations, including COVID-19-related operating restrictions. The idea is to watch for and minimize existing and potential threats.

Think like an auditor

During a financial statement audit, your accountant conducts a risk assessment. That assessment can provide a meaningful starting point for your SWOT analysis. Contact us for more information.

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Avoiding conflicts of interest with auditors

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A conflict of interest could impair your auditor’s objectivity and integrity and potentially compromise you company’s financial statements. That’s why it’s important to identify and manage potential conflicts of interest.

What is a conflict of interest?

According to the America Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), “A conflict of interest may occur if a member performs a professional service for a client and the member or his or her firm has a relationship with another person, entity, product or service that could, in the member’s professional judgment, be viewed by the client or other appropriate parties as impairing the member’s objectivity.” Companies should be on the lookout for potential conflicts when:

  • Hiring an external auditor,
  • Upgrading the level of assurance from a compilation or review to an audit, and
  • Using the auditor for a non-audit purposes, such as investment advisory services and human resource consulting.

Determining whether a conflict of interest exists requires an analysis of facts. Some conflicts may be obvious, while others may require in-depth scrutiny.

For example, if an auditor recommends an accounting software to an audit client and receives a commission from the software provider, a conflict of interest likely exists. Why? While the software may suit the company’s needs, the payment of a commission calls into question the auditor’s motivation in making the recommendation. That’s why the AICPA prohibits an audit firm from accepting commissions from a third party when it involves a company the firm audits.

Now consider a situation in which a company approaches an audit firm to provide assistance in a legal dispute with another company that’s an existing audit client. Here, given the inside knowledge the audit firm possesses of the company it audits, a conflict of interest likely exists. The audit firm can’t serve both parties to the lawsuit and comply with the AICPA’s ethical and professional standards.

How can auditors prevent potential conflicts?

AICPA standards require audit firms to be vigilant about avoiding potential conflicts. If a potential conflict is unearthed, audit firms have the following options:

  • Seek guidance from legal counsel or a professional body on the best path forward,
  • Disclose the conflict and secure consent from all parties to proceed,
  • Segregate responsibilities within the firm to avoid the potential for conflict, and/or
  • Decline or withdraw from the engagement that’s the source of the conflict.

Ask your auditors about the mechanisms the firm has put in place to identify and manage potential conflicts of interest before and during an engagement. For example, partners and staff members are usually required to complete annual compliance-related questionnaires and participate in education programs that cover conflicts of interest. Firms should monitor conflicts regularly, because circumstances may change over time, for example, due to employee turnover or M&A activity.

For more information

Conflicts of interest are one of the gray areas in auditing. But it’s an issue our firm takes seriously and proactively safeguards against. If you suspect that a conflict exists, contact us to discuss the matter and determine the most appropriate way to handle it.

© 2020

Why face-to-face meetings with your auditor are important

Woman having video chat on laptop at at office

Remote audit procedures can help streamline the audit process and protect the parties from health risks during the COVID-19 crisis. However, seeing people can be essential when it comes to identifying and assessing fraud risks during a financial statement audit. Virtual face-to-face meetings can be the solution.

Asking questions

Auditing standards require auditors to identify and assess the risks of material misstatement due to fraud and to determine overall and specific responses to those risks. Specific areas of inquiry under Clarified Statement on Auditing Standards (AU-C) Section 240, Consideration of Fraud in a Financial Statement Audit include:

  • Whether management has knowledge of any actual, suspected or alleged fraud,
  • Management’s process for identifying, responding to and monitoring the fraud risks in the entity,
  • The nature, extent and frequency of management’s assessment of fraud risks and the results of those assessments,
  • Any specific fraud risks that management has identified or that have been brought to its attention, and
  • The classes of transactions, account balances or disclosures for which a fraud risk is likely to exist.

In addition, auditors will inquire about management’s communications, if any, to those charged with governance about the management team’s process for identifying and responding to fraud risks, and to employees on its views on appropriate business practices and ethical behavior.

Seeing is believing

Traditionally, auditors require in-person meetings with managers and others to discuss fraud risks. That’s because a large part of uncovering fraud involves picking up on nonverbal cues of dishonesty. In a face-to-face interview, the auditor can, for example, observe signs of stress on the part of the interviewee in responding to the question.

However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person meetings may give rise to safety concerns, especially if either party is an older adult or has underlying medical conditions that increase the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 (or lives with a person who’s at high risk). In-person meetings with face masks also aren’t ideal from an audit perspective, because they can muffle speech and limit the interviewer’s ability to observe facial expressions.

A videoconference can help address both of these issues. Though some people may prefer the simplicity of telephone or audioconferences, the use of up-to-date videoconferencing technology can help retain the visual benefits of in-person interviews. For example, high-definition videoconferencing equipment can allow auditors to detect slight physical changes, such as smirks, eyerolls, wrinkled brows and even beads of sweat. These nonverbal cues may be critical to assessing an interviewee’s honesty and reliability.

Risky business

Evaluating fraud risks is a critical part of your auditor’s responsibilities. You can facilitate this process by anticipating the types of questions your auditor will ask and ensuring your managers and accounting personnel are all familiar with how videoconferencing technology works. Contact us for more information.

© 2020