Reimagining a More Ethical and Sustainable Management Accounting Curriculum

Editorial Note: We are delighted to present the following editorial column by Richard Kravitz, the Editor In Chief of the CPA Journal. As always, when you read the comments of our columnists, please keep in mind that they only speak for themselves. They are not expressing the positions of the AAA or of any other party.

Furthermore, the opinions expressed below do not reflect the position of the CPA Journal, The New York State Society of CPAs, or the Board of Directors or Executives of the New York State Society of CPAs.

The accounting curriculum, while relevant 40 years ago, has lost much of its relevance today in our post-modern global economy. Accounting education fails to account for the real drivers of enterprise growth in the digital economy. This article focuses on the components of value creation within publicly traded multinational corporations. It also addresses how these valued components are all but ignored in the accounting classroom, in AACSB’s model curriculum for accounting education, and by the majority of our accounting professoriate.

Accounting is a practical discipline. It focuses on the application of skills and knowledge that enable practitioners to identify, measure, monitor, control and report on business activities. However, the real drivers of long term value creation within the modern global corporation are no longer measured by these traditional accounting tools. Financial accounting, cost accounting, and managerial accounting methodologies provide little guidance on how to accurately report on the condition and value of global business. Accounting information teaches us very little about great companies whose great products and services drive our postmodern global economy.

Similarly, accounting information ignores the dominant creators of long term sustainable value, i.e. the growth drivers of modern enterprise. Accounting rules even expense many of the value creators, such as reputational capital [brand marketing], intellectual capital [patents, trademarks, business method processes], human capital [talented workforce], social and relationship capital [infrastructure, health, education and safety], and others.

Accounting also does not account for the impact that global corporations have on society. For the past 20 years, organizations such as Ceres, the GRI, the IIRC, the UN Global Compact and others have been looking at this issue. Mervyn King, founder of the IIRC, for example, focuses on the evolution of the corporation from share value to shared values, and from a shareholder centric to a stakeholder centric perspective.

Nevertheless, the average time a shareholder in America owns a US public company, according to Prem Sika in the The Myth of Shareholder Ownership, is 22 seconds.  Even Larry Fink, the consummate Milton Friedman capitalist who heads Black Rock, now suggests a new approach to corporate earnings: “Profits With Purpose.” But accounting does not measure purpose.

Finally, the lack of relevance of accounting information was amplified by luminary NYU professor Baruch Lev in his seminal work, The End of Accounting. According to Lev, “financial information contributes only 4-5% of decision relevant information for investors.” What a loss for accounting relevance.

The Critical Role of Accountants in our Post Modern Global Economy

While our training may be suspect, the role of accountants in society is not. Accountants are even more critically important in today’s global society; they are arguably more important than ever. Indeed, accounting remains a critically important gatekeeping profession.

The obligation of accountants, as its founders passionately argued, lies in their ethical responsibility to protect the public, and to insure public trust. Accountants are the historical stewards and fiduciaries of the public interest. Indeed, accountants protect the public from corporate mischief. They help insure honesty and trust in our institutions. And they report on companies that are too good to fail, too strong to fail, and yes, even too big to fail.

Accounting in a Global Environment – What has changed?

This is not our parent’s world from a global corporate perspective. It is not the world that existed even 40 years ago:

• 52 of the largest economies of the world today are multinational corporations, not sovereign nations.
• The top 2000 companies generate more than 50% of the global GDP.
• The market cap of Apple, at almost one trillion dollars, even after decline, is larger than the GDP of all of the European Union Countries except for two.
• The market cap to book value of the top 5 global corporations is between seventy five to a hundred to one. US Steel, the consummate brick and mortar corporation, on the other hand, still boasts a ratio of market cap to book value of about one to one.
• Walmart employs 2.7 million people, half the population of New Zealand.
• Google uses more electricity than the country of Sweden.
• 85% of the federal government expenditures of the United States are made to corporations, including transportation, defense, and nuclear power firms, as well as various other organizations that now perform tasks that government once performed.
• Today, corporations impact societies and stakeholders to a greater extent than at any time in history.

The Exponential Growth of Intangibles

So why is there such a huge divide between traditional accounting measurements, and between book value and market caps? What has happened during the past 40 years is revolutionary. According to the authors of Capitalism without Capital, the intangible revolution has impacted society far more than the industrial revolution of a few hundred years earlier.

87% of the value of today’s postmodern global corporation [per Ocean Tomo] lies hidden in its intangibles. These hidden assets or strategic resources do not appear on the balance sheet, income statement, cash flow statement or in retained earnings. They do not appear in inventory, goodwill, or tangible long term assets. They do not appear in the pages of accounting texts.

Strategic resources [such as intangible or hidden assets] power society today. Strategic capital drives long term value creation in our postmodern global corporation. Cost accounting texts ignore them, but they are familiar to all of us. These hidden intangibles include knowledge, data, information and ideas. They are the conceptual assets and creators of corporate value today. In fact, the investment in intangibles at 2-3 trillion dollars a year is now the dominant creator of corporate value. Intangibles include intellectual property, patents, trademarks, brands, brand identify, a skilled and talented workforce, business method patents, business processes, and supply chain sourcing.

Financial accountants and auditors hide conceptual assets from the public. They are expensed or hidden from the balance sheet. Conceptual assets are buried in SG&A or Cost of Sales, with the exception of those conceptual assets which are acquired or booked on the balance sheet for financial statement disclosure purposes. This is not deliberate; it occurs because accountants have not been trained to recognize intangibles.

Realigning Accounting Education

Accounting students invest 4 to 5 years of their lives in accounting schools. They hone their skills on traditional financial and managerial accounting techniques while ignoring 87% of the value of the global corporate enterprise. What a loss for accounting’s relevance. What a huge hole, then, that exists in the education curriculum. In future blog posts, I will suggest a realignment of accounting education.