If a cost has been incurred that might have either a future value (an asset) or a past value (an expense), the accountant always reports the most likely possibility. That is the only appropriate way to paint a portrait of an organization that is the fairest representation. However, if neither scenario appears more likely to occur, the cost is classified as an expense rather than an asset because of the principle of conservatism. Reporting a past benefit rather than a future benefit has a detrimental impact on the company’s appearance to an outside party. This handling reduces the reported net income as well as the amount shown as the total of the assets. The principle of conservatism can be seen throughout financial accounting. When the chance of two possibilities is the same, accounting prefers that the more optimistic approach be avoided.
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Similarly, a creditor is more willing to make a loan to a company that seems to be doing well economically. Such decision makers face potential losses that can be significant. Accountants take their role in this process quite seriously. As a result, financial accounting has traditionally held that the users of financial statements are best protected if the reporting process is never overly optimistic in picturing an organization’s financial health and future prospects. Money is less likely to be lost if the accountant paints a portrait that is no more rosy than necessary. The practice of conservatism is simply an attempt by financial accounting to help safeguard the public. The problem that can occur when a company appears excessively profitable can be seen in the downfall of WorldCom where investors and creditors lost billions of dollars. A major cause of this accounting scandal, one of the biggest in history, was the fraudulent decision by members of the company’s management to record a cost of nearly $4 billion as an asset rather than as an expense. Although any future benefit resulting from these expenditures was highly doubtful, the cost was reported to outsiders as an asset. Conservatism was clearly not followed.
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