What Are Accounting Policies?

Accounting policies are the specific principles and procedures implemented by a company's management team that are used to prepare its financial statements. These include any accounting methods, measurement systems, and procedures for presenting disclosures. Accounting policies differ from accounting principles in that the principles are the accounting rules and the policies are a company's way of adhering to those rules.

Key Takeaways

  • Accounting policies are procedures that a company uses to prepare financial statements. Unlike accounting principles, which are rules, accounting policies are the standards for following those rules. 
  • Accounting policies may be used to manipulate earnings legally.
  • A company's choice in accounting policies will indicate whether management is aggressive or conservative in reporting its earnings.
  • Accounting policies still need to adhere to generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP).

How Accounting Policies Are Used

Accounting policies are a set of standards that govern how a company prepares its financial statements. These policies are used to deal specifically with complicated accounting practices such as depreciation methods, recognition of goodwill, preparation of research and development (R&D) costs, inventory valuation, and the consolidation of financial accounts. These policies may differ from company to company, but all accounting policies are required to conform to generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) and/or international financial reporting standards (IFRS).

Accounting principles can be thought of as a framework in which a company is expected to operate. However, the framework is somewhat flexible, and a company's management team can choose specific accounting policies that are advantageous to the financial reporting of the company. Because accounting principles are lenient at times, the specific policies of a company are very important.

Looking into a company's accounting policies can signal whether management is conservative or aggressive when reporting earnings. This should be taken into account by investors when reviewing earnings reports to assess the quality of earnings. Also, external auditors who are hired to review a company's financial statements should review the company's policies to ensure they conform to GAAP.

Important

Company management can select accounting policies that are advantageous to their own financial reporting, such as selecting a particular inventory valuation method.

Example of an Accounting Policy

Accounting policies can be used to legally manipulate earnings. For example, companies are allowed to value inventory using the average cost, first in first out (FIFO), or last in first out (LIFO) methods of accounting. Under the average cost method, when a company sells a product, the weighted average cost of all inventory produced or acquired in the accounting period is used to determine the cost of goods sold (COGS).

Under the FIFO inventory cost method, when a company sells a product, the cost of the inventory produced or acquired first is considered to be sold. Under the LIFO method, when a product is sold, the cost of the inventory produced last is considered to be sold. In periods of rising inventory prices, a company can use these accounting policies to increase or decrease its earnings.

For example, a company in the manufacturing industry buys inventory at $10 per unit for the first half of the month and $12 per unit for the second half of the month. The company ends up purchasing a total of 10 units at $10 and 10 units at $12 and sells a total of 15 units for the entire month. 

If the company uses FIFO, its cost of goods sold is: (10 x $10) + (5 x $12) = $160. If it uses average cost, its cost of goods sold is: (15 x $11) = $165. If it uses LIFO, its cost of goods sold is: (10 x $12) + (5 x $10) = $170. It is therefore advantageous to use the FIFO method in periods of rising prices in order to minimize the cost of goods sold and increase earnings.