Finance: When numbers aren't enough

WHEN THE Accounting Standards Board issued its latest proposals for improving the quality of corporate reporting there were the inevitable howls of protest from certain sectors of the financial community.

The board and its chairman Sir David Tweedie are well used to this. Since the body was created in 1990 to crack down on the accounting abuses seen as being a significant contributory factor to the spate of corporate collapses in the late 1980s, Sir David has revelled in his characterisation as "the most hated accountant in Britain".

And the board was well-prepared for reaction to the plans announced last week for increasing the amount of information companies disclose about their pension schemes. The National Association of Pension Funds, for example, said the volatility that would result from the proposed changes could deter companies from offering employees traditional pensions based on their final salaries. The Hundred Group, which represents the finance directors of the largest UK companies, feared sharp movements in world markets - as happened last autumn - could cause significant fluctuations in company accounts.

Such complaints no doubt find sympathy with those believe the board has lately moved into areas that are too esoteric for most people to worry about. Though Sir David sees the pensions proposal, contained in a draft document known as FRED20, as being of a piece with his overall aim of forcing companies to report all relevant information and leave it to the analysts, shareholders and other users of accounts to interpret what it means.

But it will not make a lot of difference. Mark Duke, a partner with Towers Perrin, the firm of human resources consultants and actuaries, says: "The way you measure things doesn't affect their value." This does not mean that all is well with the established approach to financial reporting.

The Institute of Chartered Accountants has made attempts through fairly radical reports to encourage organisations to think about improving the format and expanding the scope of such documents, while the largest accounting firms are grappling with how to make their auditing services something clients regard as more valuable than a mere fulfilment of a regulatory requirement.

Against this background, PricewaterhouseCoopers has published a major review of what it calls "value reporting". David Phillips, the European leader of a process trademarked as ValueReporting, and his US counterpart Harold Kahn say the business world is undergoing changes that are putting managers under pressure to meet "the demands of the investment community about value creation".

This is partly a result of the ongoing craze for "shareholder value", a concept designed to remind executives of their responsibility to produce a healthy return on investment but which is often hijacked in the interests of producing short-term increases in profitability. But it also reflects the globalisation of capital markets and the desire for much greater transparency in company information.

The firm published a discussion paper on "the emerging art of reporting in the future" in 1997 and has spent the past two years testing the ideas through research and discussions with companies. Its findings are contained in the new document (appropriately available as a CD-Rom as well as a book) called ValueReporting Forecast: 2000.

One of the key discoveries is that there is a "need for improved disclosure of future-oriented information in reports". Since in some cases the value of a company pension fund is greater than the market value of the company itself, pension costs clearly fall into this category.

But the PwC report also points to the importance of non-financial information. It is not, of course, the first to realise this. The balanced scorecard, which was much discussed a few years ago, is based on companies putting extra emphasis on such "soft" measures as employee loyalty and customer satisfaction, while the more recent stakeholder concept revolves around addressing interest groups other than shareholders.

But with Internet companies apparently being valued on the basis of their potential rather than performance, there is an added impetus to provide investors and analysts with the information needed to accurately assess future value. The illustrations of best practice which end the report indicate some companies are already experimenting by including comments about such areas as customer service, staff attitudes and brand development.

The PwC team sees clear benefits for those prepared to go down this road, providing better understanding of their activities and hence better access to funds. But taking this step requires a shift in mind set from traditional results reporting which is short-term-oriented, mixes revenue and investment expenditure and ignores soft areas of activity on the basis that they are "not understood or are too difficult to measure".

Now, doesn't that sound like something Sir David Tweedie might say?