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Is it a historical drama? Is it a romantic novel? No, it’s a never ending story of…

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Classic Russian novels are famous for being somewhat large.

My copy of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” weighs in at 1,024 pages.  That is a big book.

Some day, I will get beyond page 20.

Dostoyevski’s “Crime and Punishment” is 448 pages.  I’m up to page 25 on that one.

According to a recent survey by Deloitte of UK listed companies, the size of IFRS accounts grew from an average size of 44 pages in 1996 to 101 pages in 2010.  That’s an annual growth rate of 6%, with a 7% rate of growth in the years from 2005.  The rate of growth itself appears to be growing.

So, just for fun, if you’re of a mathematical bent, and assuming that the rate of growth in volume in IFRS accounts continues at its current pace, answer this question:

How many years will it be before the page count in a set of IFRS accounts exceeds the page count for “War and Peace” and for “Crime and Punishment”?  The answer is at the bottom of this item.

Within all this bulk (which Deloitte criticises as being “swimming in words”), there is some notably useful information, such as 90% of companies clearly identified an average of 7 key performance indicators, up from 84% in 2009.

4% of companies (2009: 7%) received a modified audit opinion relating to going concern.

Surprisingly, only 35% of companies fully complied with the UK’s Combined Code on corporate governance.  That leaves a fair bit of explaining to do, on the “comply or explain” approach.

If you’re interested in the answer to the question of how many years will it be before the page count in a set of IFRS accounts exceeds the page count for “War and Peace” and for “Crime and Punishment” then IFRS accounts, at their current rate of paper busting growth, will be longer than “War and Peace” in 35 years and “Crime and Punishment” in a mere 22 years.

Who can really be trusted to keep a secret? Accountants or lawyers?

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When you speak with your lawyer, you can say almost anything and be confident in the knowledge that the lawyer will be able to preserve the confidentiality of your discussion.

Most people probably assume the same thing when having discussions with their accountant, especially in the context of discussing tax planning opportunities with a tax advisor.

Unfortunately, English readers should pay careful attention to the decision in a recent case, R (on the application of Prudential PLC) v HMRC, EWCA Civ 1094 if you would like the full legal citation.

This Court of Appeal decision stated that client privilege only extends between a lawyer and a client.  This means that any discussion between a client and an accountant cannot be guaranteed to be confidential.

This is an English legal case, which is binding in England and Wales only, but the judgment is based on common law, so is likely to be highly influential in jurisdictions based on the English system globally.

As the accountancy and legal professions increasingly compete, especially in the area of tax advice, this gives a significant advantage to the legal profession over the accountancy profession.

Who would you rather seek advice from: a lawyer who you are confident cannot be compelled to reveal the content of your discussion, or an expert accountant who is unable to promise confidentiality?

If you talk to a lawyer about this then they may well say they were pleased that they had this advantage over accountants.

Note of course though that if they felt like it they wouldn’t have to disclose what was said in your conversation…

Was it a good bet or not? 10 years and £1.4 billion later and the answer seems to be…

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Although people have been gambling for a long time, the profile of the betting industry has changed dramatically over recent years.

The bookmakers that were seen on many a high street seem to be gradually disappearing.

People are still gambling though but the delivery method of the industry is switching to internet based gambling rather than placing bets at a physical bookmakers.

Ten years ago former professional gambler Andrew Black and former JP Morgan trader Edward Wray started up a betting business that addressed matters in a new novel way.

For years the typical approach to gambling had been where a bookmaker set the odds and it was up to the individual gambler whether or not he or she accepted these odds and placed the bet.

Betfair pioneered the concept of person to person betting whereby individuals bet against each other rather than the bookmaker. Betfair provide the platform for the betting and take a commission on each transaction.

A gambler will say that they want to bet on a certain event happening (or not happening) and if another gambler wants to accept the bet then the transaction goes ahead. Betfair provide the mechanism for this to happen.

This is known as a betting exchange and is a great example of where first mover advantage really counts.

In order for the business model to work there has to be a critical mass of gamblers that are willing to offer and accept bets. Without this critical mass the business simply would not work.

Another example of where first mover advantage has been critical to business success is in online auctions. After all, who are the main competitors to eBay?

Back to Betfair though and it certainly is a good business model. Risk for example, is nicely reduced as the company is not standing to lose on the bet but instead takes a nice commission on each transaction.

So how well has it done over the last 10 years?

The answer to this can be found last Friday when 15% of the company was floated on the London stock market and the company was valued at £1.4bn.

Betfair’s advisors were some of the biggest names in the business and included Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Barclays Capital to name a few.

Amongst other things their job was to identify the price range of the proposed offer. Initial indications were that it would be between £11 to £14. The final initial public offering (IPO) price was set at £13.

With some of the top investment bankers involved and Betfair being in the gambling industry (which is not necessarily renowned for being generous to gamblers) it was something of a surprise to some people to see the share price rise by nearly 20% in the first day of initial trading after the IPO. After all, this could imply that the IPO was undervalued if there was such an initial jump in price.

I wonder what odds you would have got from Betfair that the IPO share price would rise by 20% on the first day of trading?

Forget who’s in charge of the TV remote control, who’s in control of the TV channels?

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BSkyB is the largest broadcaster in the UK, reporting a profit of £11.7 million on revenues of £5.9 billion in its most recent financial statements.

Its ownership structure is dominated by News Corporation, the transnational media conglomerate owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose other ventures include numerous newspapers and Fox studios in the USA.

It’s fair to say that Rupert Murdoch is a controversial figure.

A review of the most recent financial statements shows that News Corporation presently owns approximately 39.1% of the shares of BSkyB.  The next two largest shareholders own 5.02% and 3.01% of the votes in the company.

In other words, resisting the might of News Corporation to impose its will on BSkyB would require something more akin to a peasants’ revolt than a more standard company vote in the AGM.

IFRS 3 defines a subsidiary as an entity that is controlled by another entity.

Looking at the evidence, it would appear that the 39.1% ownership would be enough to give control of BSkyB to News Corporation, on grounds that it would be almost impossible to resist decisions favoured by such a dominant investor.

One such decision was appointing James Murdoch, son of Rupert Murdoch as chairman of BSkyB.  Lots of investors didn’t like this, but Murdoch took the helm of the company.

News Corporation produces its financial statements under US GAAP and has always consolidated BSkyB using the equity method, as an associate.

Under IFRS, it would have been arguable that full consolidation as a subsidiary would have presented a more true and fair view, as IFRS uses more principles based recognition of control than US GAAP.

However, a shock recently came to News Corporation, when it tried to increase its holding from 39.1% to a clearly controlling 61%.

The board of BSkyB refused to agree with the chairman that an offer of 700p per share should be accepted.  The board defied its biggest investor and said that they would recommend refusal of any offer less than 800p.  This appears to have come rather as a surprise to the dominant Murdoch family, who show signs of thinking of BSkyB as their fiefdom.

It’s just a nice example of when apparent control is not control and thus how to be cautious in deciding when to consolidate a company as a subsidiary, even if it generally does everything you tell it to.  If there appears to be a chance of the other investors saying “enough” and refusing to give into your will, it’s not a subsidiary.

The waiting is over. Say goodbye to David Tweedie and hello to Hans Hoogervorst.

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Photo by Seb ter Burg

After a long wait and a fair bit of speculation, rumour and expectation, we accountants now know who the next chairman of the International Accounting Standards Board is going to be.

Now, this might not sound quite as exciting as we’d like to make it sound, but this really is very significant.  When a new pope is elected, crowds throng the Vatican, there is black smoke, followed by white smoke and a general excitement and drama.  Our own global leader was announced by a modest press release from Cannon Street in London (home to the IASB) with a type of modesty that may be typical of our profession.

The successor to Sir David Tweedie will be Hans Hoogervorst, with effect from 1 July 2011.

Mr Hoogervost is a Dutch national, with an interesting background in both academia, politics and business.

Between 1998 and 2007, he held a number of positions in the Dutch Government, including minister of finance, minister of health, welfare and sport, and secretary for social affairs. Prior to this, he served both as a member and senior policy advisor to the Dutch parliament and the ministry of finance. He also spent three years as a banking officer for the National Bank of Washington in Washington, DC.

Mr Hoogervorst holds a Masters degree in modern history (University of Amsterdam, 1981) and a Master of Arts degree in international relations (Johns Hopkins University school of advanced international relations, majoring in international economics and Latin American studies).

This is a varied profile of experience and one that is probably very suited to the man that will take IFRS to the next level of development with the (hopeful) convergence of IFRS and US GAAP.  We think that considerable assertiveness and diplomacy will be required in that task!

Whoever takes over from David Tweedie has a considerable job on his hands.  Under Tweedie’s leadership, IFRS has moved from peripheral relevance to near global domination.  Standards, on the whole, have become much better.  David Tweedie is a tough act to follow.

We wish Mr Hoogervorst every success.  We are pleased that we have the best part of a year to learn how to pronounce his name properly.

We all make mistakes at work and I know you shouldn’t laugh but…

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On Tuesday, Microsoft were due to launch their much anticipated Windows 7 phone system. The launch event was scheduled to take place in New York with a start time of 3.30pm.

“Joe O” works for the electronics firm LG who were one of a number of phone companies that were expected to launch Windows 7 phones to coincide with the Microsoft event.

The phone companies however were under strict instructions not to announce anything until after Microsoft’s big launch.

Alas, poor Joe who is based in the UK made a slight mistake when he thought the launch time was 3.30pm UK time rather than 3.30pm New York time. The end result was that LG’s official UK blog revealed details of the phone and what it was capable of doing under the new Microsoft system some 5 hours before Microsoft started the official event.

The error was spotted by LG pretty quickly and the post was withdrawn but it was too late as it had already been picked up by a number of other websites.

Now, picture the scene. You’re part of a project team that has been working on a major project for some time. The “partner” to your company on this project is none other than the mighty Microsoft. The world’s press are anxiously awaiting the launch event and then you press a button which releases the news to the world some 5 hours early.

What would you do?

No, honestly, what would you do?

Deny it? Blame it on somebody else? Say it was a technical error?

Joe did the honourable thing and posted the following on the LG blog:

Yes, that early slip may have been my fault, I may have failed to notice the time zone was EDT, not BST, but let’s not kick a man when he’s down. And I was down, literally hiding under my desk ignoring my constantly ringing phone.

Please consider this my public confession… And remember “to err is human; to forgive divine”.

Showing that Joe has a good sense of humour he also posted the following animated GIF on the blog.

In today’s ever increasing global business environment this is a useful reminder that it’s important to remember the more simple areas of international business.

We all make mistakes though and well done to Joe for his excellent recovery!

How much does it cost to buy your loyalty?

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Last week one of the top policemen in the UK admitted to getting discounted flights for his family by using air miles obtained on tax payer funded flights.

John Yates, who is the Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police (i.e. the  Greater London Police), is entitled to fly business class on official trips abroad. This enables him to amass significant amounts of air miles which can then be used for free flights in the future.

With a nice corporate governance angle the rules of the Metropolitan Police say that these air miles must be used for future work related flights and not personal ones. In what he claimed was an oversight, Mr Yates however used these air miles for a number of personal flights.

I’m sure it was the last thing on Mr Yates mind but from the Airline’s point of view, the provision of air miles can involve big figures.

The IFRS Interpretation Committee (formerly known as IFRIC) didn’t make many friends when they wrote IFRIC 13: Loyalty Programmes.

Broadly, IFRIC 13 says that when you are given loyalty programme points by a business, they have to recognise a proportion of the total sale to you as a sale of loyalty points.  In other words, they are buying your loyalty, rather than rewarding it.

This means that each sale has to be unbundled into two components – a sale of loyalty points at the value to the customer (which is likely to be very much higher than the cost of delivering the promised service) and the underlying sale itself.

As the loyalty points are used up or expire, the deferred revenue from loyalty points sold is recognised as revenue.

Previously, the accounting policy of most companies had been to recognise loyalty costs as a provision at the expected marginal cost of delivering the service.

This can be a fairly significant figure.  By “fairly significant”, we naturally mean “completely massive”.  Have a guess what the effect was on shareholders’ equity in the restated 2008 accounts of British Airways for implementation of IFRIC 13.

The answer is £206 million.  Nope, that’s not a typo; getting towards a quarter of a billion British Pounds.  Ouch.

We at ExP travel fairly a lot for work and we’ve noticed that airline loyalty programmes have become a little less generous of late.  Maybe the new accounting rules are something to do with this?

Has the Big 4 become the Big 3?

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Things have changed. You won’t be hearing much about PricewaterhouseCoopers any more.

Is this breaking news? Does this mean that we will be talking about the Big 3 rather than the Big 4?

Should PricewaterhouseCoopers partners and staff be rushing to recruitment consultants to get another job?

There’s no need to panic as all is well with the company. What they have done though is undertaken a rebranding exercise.

The company has commonly been referred to as PwC since it was established via a merger back in 1998 between Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand. With effect from Monday though they will now officially go by the name of pwc.

As part of a multi-million pound make over not only will the company be known as pwc but the corporate logo and corporate colours have changed.

The new logo incorporates the letters “pwc” in lower case along with a 6 rectangle symbol in shades of orange and red.

According to pwc, the brand was refreshed “in order to strengthen, and modernise how it represents its worldwide network to its clients, its people and the communities in which it operates.”

Global brand consultants Wolff Olins designed the logo in collaboration with PwC employees and clients. The complete rebranding process reportedly took two years.

From a personal point of view, I like the new logo and orange/red spectrum colours which I think are nice fresh, clean colours.

What about people from some of the other accounting firms? My guess is that they must be relieved. With KPMG having blue/white, Ernst & Young black/yellow and Deloitte navy/green it must have been a relief all round that pwc went for orange/red.

Auditing the auditors – in a rather public way!

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In the UK, the Professional Oversight Board is one of the bodies that works towards improving the quality of audit work and audit firms.

They have just published their 2010 inspection reports into the Big Four audit firms.  If you feel so inspired, you can read these reports free here.

Obviously, not only the Big Four know how to audit.  However, it’s probably fair to assume that if there is a pattern in perceived weakness in audit within the biggest firms, it’s probably a pattern within the profession as a whole.

The good news is that in almost all cases, the POB found that audit work was done well or acceptably, though with room for improvement.  There’s something very healthy about a profession that scrutinises its own commanding heights and then publishes its findings in a wholly public way.

The general public are all stakeholders in our profession and they deserve to see the results of our own introspection.  Partners in big audit firms whose work has just been the subject of constructive criticism may feel somewhat differently about this of course!

A pattern within the reports is that nobody seems to be especially strong at conducting goodwill impairments.  Three of the Big Four were specifically criticised by the POB for failing to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to support the clients’ assertions that goodwill had not been impaired.

In the frank but diplomatic language of these reports, it sounds like the audit teams in certain particular audits didn’t really know how to approach deciding whether purchased goodwill had actually been impaired.

Is this the fault of the auditor, or is it the fault of accounting standards that require goodwill impairments to be recorded but aren’t entirely specific about how to do it?  We think it might well be a bit of both.

Criticisms such as audit reports being issued on a date before the audit working papers had been signed are somewhat harder to justify, however.

We imagine that the partner responsible for that one might have a table to himself or herself at the office Christmas party.

It’s 2010 so should a Witch pay income tax or not? Well, according to the Romanian government…

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“Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn, and cauldron bubble” so goes the famous Witch’s chant from Act 4, scene 1 of Macbeth but was a similar chant taking place last week when a potential Witch Tax was rejected by the Romanian Senate?

Like many countries around the world Romania suffered badly during the recession. In an attempt to balance the books the government has undertaken cuts in public sector wages as well as raising the VAT rate.

In a somewhat unusual move last week though, Alin Popoviciu and Cristi Dugulescu, two members of the ruling Democratic Liberal Party drafted a law whereby Witches would have had to produce receipts for the services they performed and hence be taxed on them.

Now whilst the image of Witches queuing up to submit their tax returns may cast an unlikely picture there are a number of interesting issues.

First of all then surely they are just self employed individuals? From a tax point of view they are no different from for example a self employed builder or a self employed accountant who both have to pay income taxes.

Admittedly, from a non tax point of view it probably elicits some interesting expressions on the face of the person who asks them what they do for a living but back to tax and there would be some questions that needed to be answered:

What about Witches training courses? Surely they would be a tax deductible expense?

Would the costs of keeping a black cat be considered a personal expense or an expense of the business?

What about the purchase of a new broom. Would it be a capital or revenue expense?

In another move which no doubt came as a complete surprise for all concerned, fortune tellers were told that they were to be held liable for any incorrect predictions that they made.

The Witches and fortune tellers needn’t have worried too much though as Romania’s Senate voted down the proposal on Tuesday.

Popoviciu allegedly claimed that the lawmakers didn’t implement the law as they were frightened of a Witches’ curse being made on them.

Benjamin Franklin once famously said “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Maybe the Senators that voted down the Witches tax in Romania were concerned that the two would be combined.