Financial accounting and managerial accounting are two of the four largest branches of the accounting discipline (tax accounting and auditing are the others). Despite many similarities in approach and usage, there are significant differences between the two. These differences center around compliance, accounting standards and target audiences.
Main Objectives of Both Accounting Practices
The main objective of managerial accounting is to produce useful information for a company's internal use. Business managers collect information that encourages strategic planning, helps them set realistic goals, and encourages and efficient directing of company resources.
Financial accounting has some internal uses as well, but it is much more concerned with informing those outside of a company. The final accounts or financial statements produced through financial accounting are designed to disclose the firm's business performance and financial health. If managerial accounting is created for a company's management, financial accounting is created for its investors, creditors and industry regulators.
Past and Present Use
The information created through financial accounting is entirely historical; financial statements contain data for a defined period of time. Managerial accounting looks at past performance and creates business forecasts. Business decisions should be informed by this type of accounting.
Investors and creditors often use the financial statements to create forecasts of their own. In this way, financial accounting is not entirely backward-looking. Nevertheless, no future forecasting is allowed in the statements.
Regulation and Uniformity
The biggest practical difference between financial accounting and managerial accounting relates to their legal status. Reports generated through managerial accounting are only circulated internally. Each company is free to create its own system and rules on managerial reports. This means there is no centralized system regulating reports, and it can often take much longer to find what you need versus financial reports, which are typically created in the same manner.
In contrast, financial accounting reports are highly regulated, especially the income statement, balance sheet and cash flow statement. Since this information is released for public consumption and is highly anticipated by investors, companies must be very careful about how they make calculations, how figures are reported and in what order those reports are constructed.
The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), under the aegis of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), establishes financial accounting rules in the United States. The sum of these rules is referred to as generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP).
Through this uniformity, investors and lenders compare companies directly on the basis of their financial statements. Moreover, financial statements are released on a regular schedule, establishing consistency of external information flows.
For a variety of reasons, financial accounting reports tend to be aggregated, concise and generalized. Information is simultaneously more transparent and less revealing. This is not normally the case with managerial accounting as there are many reasons to do things a specific way for each company. For example, you might want to internally report lower bonuses so as to not anger mid-to-lower level employees who might want to peruse the report.
Managerial accounting reports are highly detailed, technical, specific and often experimental. Firms are always looking for a competitive advantage, so they examine a multitude of information that could seem pedantic or confusing to outside parties.