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General definition of accounting

Category: Management

Today, it is impossible to manage a business operation without accurate and timely accounting information. Managers and em­ployees, lenders, suppliers, stockholders, and government agen­cies all rely on the information contained in two financial state­ments. These two reports — the balance sheet and the income statement — are summaries of a firm’s activities during a specific time period. They represent the results of perhaps tens of thou­sands of transactions that have occurred during the accounting period.

Accounting is the process of systematically collecting, an­alyzing, and reporting financial information. The basic prod­uct that an accounting firm sells is information needed for the cli­ents.

Many people confuse accounting with bookkeeping. Book­keeping is a necessary part of accounting. Bookkeepers are re­sponsible for recording (or keeping) the financial data that the ac­counting system processes.

The primary users of accounting information are managers. The firm’s accounting system provides the information dealing with revenues, costs, accounts receivables, amounts borrowed and owed, profits, return on investment, and the like. This infor­mation can be compiled for the entire firm; for each product; for each sales territory, store, or individual salesperson; for each divi­sion or department; and generally in any way that will help those who manage the organization. Accounting information helps managers plan and set goals, organize, motivate, and control. Lenders and suppliers need this accounting information to evaluate credit risks. Stockholders and potential investors need the information to evaluate soundness of investments, and government agencies need it to confirm tax liabilities, confirm payroll deductions, and approve new issues of stocks and bonds. The firm’s accounting system must be able to provide all this information, in the required form.


The basis for the accounting process is the accounting equation. It shows the relationship among the firm’s assets, liabil­ities, and owner’s equity.

Assets are the items of value that a firm owns — cash, inven­tories, land, equipment, buildings, patents, and the like.

Liabilities are the firm’s debts and obligations — what it owes to others.

Owner’s equity is the difference between a firm’s assets and its liabilities — what would be left over for the firm’s owners if its assets were used to pay off its liabilities.

The relationship among these three terms is the following:

Owners’ equity = assets — liabilities

(The owners’ equity is equal to the assets minus the liabilities)

For a sole proprietorship or partnership, the owners’ equity is shown as the difference between assets and liabilities. In a part­nership, each partner’s share of the ownership is reported sepa­rately by each owner’s name. For a corporation, the owners’ eq­uity is usually referred to as stockholders ‘ equity or sharehold­ers ‘ equity. It is shown as the total value of its stock, plus retained earnings that have accumulated to date.

By moving the above three terms algebraically, we obtain the standard form of the accounting equation:

Assets = liabilities + owners’ equity

(The assets are equal to the liabilities plus the owners’ equity)


A balance sheet (or statement of financial position), is a summary of a firm’s assets, liabilities, and owners’ equity ac­counts at a particular time, showing the various money amounts that enter into the accounting equation. The balance sheet must demonstrate that the accounting equation does indeed balance. That is, it must show that the firm’s assets are equal to its liabilities plus its owners’ equity. The balance sheet is prepared at least once a year. Most firms also have balance sheets prepared semi-annually, quarterly, or monthly.


An income statement is a summary of a firm’s revenues and expenses during a specified accounting period. The in­come statement is sometimes called the statement of income and expenses. It may be prepared monthly, quarterly, semiannually, or annually. An income statement covering the previous year must be included in a corporation’s annual report to its stockholders.


The information contained in these two financial statements becomes more important when it is compared with corresponding information for previous years, for competitors, and for the indus­try in which the firm operates. A number of financial ratios can also be computed from this information. These ratios provide a picture of the firm’s profitability, its short-term financial position, its activity in the area of accounts receivables and inventory, and its long-term debt financing. Like the information on the firm’s fi­nancial statements, the ratios can and should be compared with those of past accounting periods, those of competitors, and those representing the average of the industry as a whole.

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