Accounting Principles Explained: How They Work, GAAP, IFRS

Accounting Principles

Ryan Oakley / Investopedia

What Are Accounting Principles?

Accounting principles are the rules and guidelines that companies and other bodies must follow when reporting financial data. These rules make it easier to examine financial data by standardizing the terms and methods that accountants must use.

The International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) is the most widely used set of accounting principles, with adoption in 167 jurisdictions. The United States uses a separate set of accounting principles, known as generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP).

Key Takeaways

  • Accounting standards are implemented to improve the quality of financial information reported by companies.
  • In the United States, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) issues generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP).
  • GAAP is required for all publicly traded companies in the U.S.; it is also routinely implemented by non-publicly traded companies as well.
  • Internationally, the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) issues International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS).
  • The FASB and the IASB sometimes work together to issue joint standards on hot-topic issues, but there is no intention for the U.S. to switch to IFRS in the foreseeable future.
1:33

Accounting Principles

The Purpose of Accounting Principles

The ultimate goal of any set of accounting principles is to ensure that a company’s financial statements are complete, consistent, and comparable.

This makes it easier for investors to analyze and extract useful information from the company’s financial statements, including trend data over a period of time. It also facilitates the comparison of financial information across different companies. Accounting principles also help mitigate accounting fraud by increasing transparency and allowing red flags to be identified.

The ultimate goal of standardized accounting principles is to allow financial statement users to view a company’s financials with certainty that the information disclosed in the report is complete, consistent, and comparable.

Comparability

Comparability is the ability for financial statement users to review multiple companies’ financials side by side with the guarantee that accounting principles have been followed to the same set of standards.

Accounting information is not absolute or concrete, and standards are developed to minimize the negative effects of inconsistent data. Without these rules, comparing financial statements among companies would be extremely difficult, even within the same industry. Inconsistencies and errors also would be harder to spot.

What Are the Basic Accounting Principles?

Some of the most fundamental accounting principles include the following:

  • Accrual principle
  • Conservatism principle
  • Consistency principle
  • Cost principle
  • Economic entity principle
  • Full disclosure principle
  • Going concern principle
  • Matching principle
  • Materiality principle
  • Monetary unit principle
  • Reliability principle
  • Revenue recognition principle
  • Time period principle

The most notable principles include the revenue recognition principle, matching principle, materiality principle, and consistency principle. Completeness is ensured by the materiality principle, as all material transactions should be accounted for in the financial statements. Consistency refers to a company’s use of accounting principles over time.

When accounting principles allow a choice among multiple methods, a company should apply the same accounting method over time or disclose its change in accounting method in the footnotes to the financial statements.

Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP)

Generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) are uniform accounting principles for private companies and nonprofits in the U.S. These principles are largely set by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), an independent nonprofit organization whose members are chosen by the Financial Accounting Foundation.

A similar organization, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB), is responsible for setting the GAAP standards for local and state governments. And a third body, the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board (FASAB), publishes the accounting principles for federal agencies.

Although privately held companies are not required to abide by GAAP, publicly traded companies must file GAAP-compliant financial statements to be listed on a stock exchange. Chief officers of publicly traded companies and their independent auditors must certify that the financial statements and related notes were prepared in accordance with GAAP.

Privately held companies and nonprofit organizations also may be required by lenders or investors to file GAAP-compliant financial statements. For example, annual audited GAAP financial statements are a common loan covenant required by most banking institutions. Therefore, most companies and organizations in the U.S. comply with GAAP, even though it is not a legal requirement.

Accounting principles differ around the world, meaning that it’s not always easy to compare the financial statements of companies from different countries.

International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS)

The International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) issues International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). These standards are used in more than 120 countries, including those in the European Union (EU).

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the U.S. government agency responsible for protecting investors and maintaining order in the securities markets, has expressed interest in transitioning to IFRS. However, because of the differences between the two standards, the U.S. is unlikely to switch in the foreseeable future.

However, the FASB and the IASB continue to work together to issue similar regulations on certain topics as accounting issues arise. For example, in 2014, the FASB and the IASB jointly announced new revenue recognition standards.

Since accounting principles differ around the world, investors should take caution when comparing the financial statements of companies from different countries. The issue of differing accounting principles is less of a concern in more mature markets. Still, caution should be used, as there is still leeway for number distortion under many sets of accounting principles.

Who sets accounting principles and standards?

Various bodies are responsible for setting accounting standards. In the United States, generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) are regulated by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). In Europe and elsewhere, International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) are established by the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB).

How does IFRS differ from GAAP?

IFRS is a standards-based approach that is used internationally, while GAAP is a rules-based system used primarily in the U.S. IFRS is seen as a more dynamic platform that is regularly being revised in response to an ever-changing financial environment, while GAAP is more static.

Several methodological differences exist between the two systems. For instance, GAAP allows companies to use either first in, first out (FIFO) or last in, first out (LIFO) as an inventory cost method. LIFO, however, is banned under IFRS.

When were accounting principles first set forth?

Standardized accounting principles date all the way back to the advent of double-entry bookkeeping in the 15th and 16th centuries, which introduced a T-ledger with matched entries for assets and liabilities. Some scholars have argued that the advent of double-entry accounting practices during that time provided a springboard for the rise of commerce and capitalism. What would become the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) attempted to launch the first accounting standards to be used by firms in the United States in the 1930s.

What are some critiques of accounting principles?

Critics of principles-based accounting systems say they can give companies far too much freedom and do not prescribe transparency. They believe because companies do not have to follow specific rules that have been set out, their reporting may provide an inaccurate picture of their financial health. In the case of rules-based methods like GAAP, complex rules can cause unnecessary complications in the preparation of financial statements. These critics claim having strict rules means that companies must spend an unfair amount of their resources to comply with industry standards.

The Bottom Line

Accounting principles are rules and guidelines that companies must abide by when reporting financial data. Whether it’s GAAP in the U.S. or IFRS elsewhere, the overarching goal of these principles is to boost transparency and basically make it easier for investors to compare the financial statements of different companies.

Without these rules and standards, publicly traded companies would likely present their financial information in a way that inflates their numbers and makes their trading performance look better than it actually was. If companies were able to pick and choose what information to disclose and how, it would be a nightmare for investors.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) Foundation. “Who Uses IFRS Accounting Standards?

  2. Financial Accounting Standards Board. “About the FASB.”

  3. Governmental Accounting Standards Board. “About the GASB.”

  4. Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board. “Standards and Guidance.”

  5. CFA Institute. “US GAAP: Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.”

  6. American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. “IFRS FAQs.”

  7. U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission. “Spotlight on Work Plan for Global Accounting Standards.”

  8. Financial Accounting Standards Board, via Internet Archive. “Revenue Recognition.”

  9. American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. “Is IFRS That Different from U.S. GAAP?

  10. International Accounting Standards Board. “Accounting Policies and Accounting Estimates,” Page 16.

  11. Financial Accounting Foundation. “Accounting Standards.”

  12. Securities and Exchange Commission Historical Society. “The Richard C. Adkerson Gallery on the SEC Role in Accounting Standards Setting.”