This is a surprising, possibly shocking, revelation. Financial accounting information has universally been branded as exhibiting rigid exactness. In fact, accountants are often referred to as “bean counters” because of their perceived need to count every bean in the bowl to arrive at obsessively accurate numbers. Here, though, the assertion is made that accounting information is not a precise picture but merely a fair representation of an organization’s financial health and prospects. How correct or exact is the financial information that is reported by a business or other organization? Answer: In accounting, materiality has long been the underlying benchmark in the reporting of information. This concept requires that data presented by an organization to decision makers should never contain any material misstatements. For financial accounting information, this is the basic standard for the required level of accuracy. Decision makers want financial statements—such as those prepared by Starbucks or Intel—to contain no material misstatements. Because of their central role in this reporting process, understanding the terms “misstatement” and “material” is essential for any student seeking to understand financial accounting

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A misstatement is an error (made accidentally) or fraud (done intentionally) where reported figures or words actually differ from the underlying reality. For example, a company official could erroneously record a $100,000 expenditure that was made to acquire a new building as actually pertaining to the purchase of land. Consequently, the building’s cost might be reported as $2.3 million when it was actually $2.4 million. This financial information is misstated. The balance presented for the building contains a $100,000 misstatement, as does the figure shown for land. A misstatement is judged to be material if it is so significant that its presence would impact a decision made by an interested party. Using the above illustration, assume the accidental $100,000 reduction in the reported cost of this building leads an outside decision maker to alter a choice being made (such as whether to buy or sell capital stock, the price to exchange for such shares, or whether to grant a loan). Because of that outcome, the misstatement is material by definition. Financial information can (and almost always does) contain misstatements.
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