How much is 2 plus 2?
In a classic book about the accounting profession some forty years ago, Unaccountable Accounting: Games Accountants Play, Abraham Briloff recounts a supposedly true story suggesting the primary criterion corporations employed in selecting their public accounting firms. In the event that you may not have heard this story, I wish to tell it here and now, since it may still have relevance in our current times.
Once upon a time in accounting land, there lived eight big giants: Arthur Andersen; Ernst & Ernst; Haskins & Sells; Lybrand, Ross Bros. & Montgomery; Peat, Marwick, Mitchell; Price Waterhouse; Touche, Ross; and Arthur Young. These public accounting firms were regarded as gods by everyone in the business community and the accounting profession. Whenever they spoke, everyone listened. And whatever they signed, the business community accepted as gospel.
An executive of a corporation wishing to go public interviewed the partners of these various "Big Eight" accounting firms. He needed the seal of approval of a Big Eight firm on his financials in order to enhance the valuation of his corporation's stock offering. In the interview, all he asked of the partners from each public accounting firm was the following simple question: "How much is 2 plus 2?" Virtually all of the partners of the Big Eight accounting firms, thinking that the executive was a complete idiot, simply replied, "4, of course",— that is, all but one partner from a Big Eight firm, who paused and remained silent for a considerable period of time, not replying with the obvious answer that the other interviewees had immediately spurted out. His response, after some serious reflection, was, “What number did you have in mind?” Needless to say, upon hearing what he wanted to be understood, the executive selected this partner's public accounting firm.
Back then in 1972 when the book was written, Abraham Briloff did not think very highly of GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles), preferring his own acronym, CRAP (Cleverly Rigged Accounting Ploys), to describe the profession's accounting methodologies. In fact, Briloff felt that the Big Eight firms in particular had been selling out their requisite professional posture of independence, especially in regard to their audit clients.
The question today, of course, is how much has really changed in the last 40 years? I would be interested in hearing Briloff''s reply; I suspect that he might say, "not very much". Abraham Briloff was, and remains so in his writings, an important gadfly and watchdog of the accounting profession, a voice of its collective conscience. Regrettably, as long as accounting firms are hand picked by their clients, the question raised by Briloff many years ago will continue to haunt, if not tarnish, our profession: how truly independent and objective can accountants afford to be? Was Briloff too cynical believing that we as professionals would never bite the hands that feed us? Or are we too willing to be naive?
This article is provided for informational purposes and is not intended to be construed as legal, accounting, or other professional advice. For further information, please consult appropriate professional advice from your attorney and certified public accountant.
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