Can they figure it all out?

Accountants are contemplating their future in preparation for global changes, reports Roger Trapp
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The Independent Online
Accountants are not generally reckoned to be philosophical types. All that number-crunching leaves little time for rumination. Yet there is no doubt that the profession is becoming more prone to self-appraisal.

Time was when a few accountancy academics and the very wrinkly brained types at large firms called "technical partners" were about the only people who devoted time to such questions as "what should accountancy be about?" Everybody else was poring over clients' stock-control systems and trying to work out why some companies had petty cash budgets big enough to run a small army. Now navel gazing is much more popular.

This is not to belittle efforts to get to grips with the essence of the subject. It could be argued that the often uncertain role of accountants in the spate of corporate collapses that ushered in the Nineties meant that some sort of re-examination had to take place. It is just that all these reports and conferences seem a little excessive - until you realise that accounting could be on the verge of a significant development.

To much of the outside world, accountancy is a dreary occupation peopled by dull types who tick boxes and add up columns of figures. In fact, in its true, non-bookkeeping sense, it requires a great deal of judgement. It is not an exact science; indeed, it is a lot closer to an art than is commonly realised.

All of which makes life interesting for accountants and confusing for those who read their reports. It is often possible to interpret them in different ways, and what is allowed in one part of the world may not be permissible in another.

Over the years, the contrasts between the rules of the two main standard setters - Britain and the US - have been particularly marked. But recent months have seen a third body - the International Accounting Standards Committee - flex its muscles. Partly due to a change in the environment and partly as a result of the forceful personality of the new secretary general, Sir Bryan Carsberg, it has moved the world a lot closer to having the single set of standards that many people would assume already exists.

According to Roger Davis, head of audit at Coopers & Lybrand, three factors have helped the IASC to push its head above the parapet. First, European Commission officials have put their weight behind international standards rather than - as seemed likely at one point - confusing the situation by developing their own set. Second, in the US, the Securities and Exchange Commission has come under pressure to take a more positive view of international standards. Third, the fast-emerging economies of Asia and elsewhere that have previously not had to worry much about accounting standards are opting to take the international approach.

Mr Davis believes that by the end of next year there will be a core of worldwide standards, but that is only the start. "The key is who's going to do the interpreting," he says. "Interpretation is going to be the real test of acceptability in world capital markets."

In particular, he is interested in seeing how influential the domestic standard setters will be. Already they are having to co-operate, as the British Accounting Standards Board and the LJS Financial Accounting Standards Board are doing over the clearly international issue of derivatives. "I think it will become increasingly difficult for a domestic standard setter to set a standard that is out of line with international thinking," adds Mr Davis.

In his view, this is not just an academic point. Users of accounts - chiefly members of corporate boards - need to be aware of what is going on, and to make a contribution. Hence the event that his firm is holding in London on 24 October.

The conference on "the future direction of accounting" - which will see Sir Bryan Carsberg, Sir David Tweedie, chairman of the ASB, and Jim Leisenring, vice-chairman of the FASB, sharing a stage - is primarily intended to give directors and analysts a forum to discuss developments.

Mr Davis says: "The real issue is: what does the board need to run the business?" But perhaps the main interest will centre on the extent to which the views of directors and analysts converge

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