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David Rapp on Harnessing Accounting to Your Purpose

Summary:
When we asked international technology entrepreneur Paul Tenney about the pre-requisites to entrepreneurial business success, he said, “Learn accounting”. Accounting — or economic calculation — is one of the four pillars of entrepreneurship. And when it’s viewed through Austrian eyes, it becomes a more powerful business tool than, perhaps, you might have realized. Whether we ...

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When we asked international technology entrepreneur Paul Tenney about the pre-requisites to entrepreneurial business success, he said, “Learn accounting”.

Accounting — or economic calculation — is one of the four pillars of entrepreneurship. And when it’s viewed through Austrian eyes, it becomes a more powerful business tool than, perhaps, you might have realized.

Whether we are talking about retrospective accounting (P&L accounting and financial reporting) or commercial pre-calculation to plan future actions (management accounting or cost accounting), how you use the tool makes a difference to the results you get.

Our guest in E4E episode 51, Dr. David Rapp, is an international leader in the field of Accounting and Management Control, a subject he teaches at one of Europe’s top business schools.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights

Accounting is a means to help you achieve your desired ends — apply judgment when using the tool.

Austrian economics teaches us to subjectively choose goals and then select the best means to achieve those goals. Accounting is just another tool to help the entrepreneur. There are plenty of explicit and implicit options in how to use it. David calls this attitude “purpose orientation” — one of the most important aspects in the field of accounting. Any computation should be shaped by its underlying purpose.

Financial reporting is subject to local rules — but there are always options in applying them.

If the purpose is to pay as little tax as possible, for example, a firm may apply depreciation or amortization rules in such a way as to reduce taxable profits. If the purpose is to present the firm in the best possible light to secure external funding, the same rules might be applied in a different way to display a different calculation of profit. There are options available for valuation of assets and of inventory that can materially affect the balance sheet.

Entrepreneurs should be rigorous in ensuring that their own managerial accounting does not mislead them.

Some modern finance theories and models are unrealistic — such as the standardized Capital Asset Pricing Model and the Weighted Average Cost of Capital approach. The entrepreneur’s task is to apply real world judgement in deciding on future actions. Austrian Economics guides us towards realism not models, and the insights from Austrian Economics are the best ones to integrate into managerial accounting.

Entrepreneurs should bear in mind core Austrian Economics principles to guide their options in accounting.

Dr. Rapp mentioned these principles:

  • Subjective value
  • The importance of opportunity costs
  • Distinguishing between value and price
  • Understanding that prices determine costs rather than vice versa,
  • Differentiating between uncertainty and risk

Does accounting send reliable signals of business health to the entrepreneur? Not necessarily. Entrepreneurs should be on their guard.

Dr. Rapp advises us that general guidance to the firm’s owners and management is not possible via accounting. Accounting is not neutral and not a perfect tool for measurement or reporting. Again, the choice of reports comes down to the goal the entrepreneur is pursuing.

If the goal is a sale to an external buyer, then an accounting focus on EBIT might be the best channel for the most relevant business health monitoring. If the goal is external financing from a bank, a more appropriate signal might be found in a solvency measure such as debt-to-equity ratio.

Can accounting accommodate the Austrian Economics mandate for dynamic flexibility — continuous adjustment to changing customer preferences in the marketplace?

Yes, says Dr Rapp: by emphasizing the P&L to reflect the profit-and-loss outcomes of entrepreneurial actions and to reflect how well changing allocation of resources serves customers. Sub-dividing accounts into shorter time periods and different lines of business can more accurately reflect the dynamism of a business. And extensive use of notes to accounts in reports can provide a qualitative flexibility in reporting.

Accounting plays a primary and noble role in the advance of civilization.

Our complex market economy could not have evolved without accounting. It’s an important part of the system that allocated capital to its highest and most profitable use. Accounting is not boring, dry or dispensable. Rather, it’s a mainstay of human progress.

Additional Resource

"Accounting From An Austrian (Misesian) Perspective" (PDF): Mises.org/E4E_51_PDF

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