What are Generally Accepted Accounting Principles?

Generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) refer to a common set of accounting principles, standards, and procedures issued by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). Public companies in the United States must follow GAAP when their accountants compile their financial statements. GAAP is a combination of authoritative standards (set by policy boards) and the commonly accepted ways of recording and reporting accounting information. GAAP aims to improve the clarity, consistency, and comparability of the communication of financial information.

GAAP may be contrasted with pro forma accounting, which is a non-GAAP financial reporting method. Internationally, the equivalent to GAAP in the United States is referred to as international financial reporting standards (IFRS). IFRS is followed in over 120 countries, including those in the European Union (EU).

1:43

GAAP

Understanding GAAP

GAAP helps govern the world of accounting according to general rules and guidelines. It attempts to standardize and regulate the definitions, assumptions, and methods used in accounting across all industries. GAAP covers such topics as revenue recognition, balance sheet classification, and materiality.

The ultimate goal of GAAP is ensure 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.

These 10 general concepts can help you remember the main mission of GAAP:

1.) Principle of Regularity

The accountant has adhered to GAAP rules and regulations as a standard.

2.) Principle of Consistency

Accountants commit to applying the same standards throughout the reporting process to prevent errors or discrepancies. Accountants are expected to fully disclose and explain the reasons behind any changed or updated standards in the footnotes to the financial statements.

3.) Principle of Sincerity

The accountant strives to provide an accurate and impartial depiction of a company’s financial situation.

4.) Principle of Permanence of Methods

The procedures used in financial reporting should be consistent.

5.) Principle of Non-Compensation

Both negatives and positives should be reported with full transparency and without the expectation of debt compensation.

6.) Principle of Prudence

Emphasizing fact-based financial data representation that is not clouded by speculation.

7.) Principle of Continuity

While valuing assets, it should be assumed the business will continue to operate.

8.) Principle of Periodicity

Entries should be distributed across the appropriate periods of time. For example, revenue should be reported in its relevant accounting period.

9.) Principle of Materiality / Good Faith

Accountants must strive for full disclosure in financial reports.

10.) Principle of Utmost Good Faith

Derived from the Latin phrase “uberrimae fidei” used within the insurance industry. It presupposes that parties remain honest in all transactions.

Compliance with GAAP

If a corporation's stock is publicly traded, its financial statements must adhere to rules established by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The SEC requires that publicly traded companies in the U.S. regularly file GAAP-compliant financial statements in order to remain publicly listed on the stock exchanges. GAAP compliance is ensured through an appropriate auditor's opinion, resulting from an external audit by a certified public accounting (CPA) firm.

Although it is not required for non-publicly traded companies, GAAP is viewed favorably by lenders and creditors. Most financial institutions will require annual GAAP compliant financial statements as a part of their debt covenants when issuing business loans. As a result, most companies in the United States do follow GAAP.

If a financial statement is not prepared using GAAP, investors should be cautious. Without GAAP, comparing financial statements of different companies would be extremely difficult, even within the same industry, making an apples-to-apples comparison hard. Some companies may report both GAAP and non-GAAP measures when reporting their financial results. GAAP regulations require that non-GAAP measures be identified in financial statements and other public disclosures, such as press releases.

The hierarchy of GAAP is designed to improve financial reporting. It consists of a framework for selecting the principles that public accountants should use in preparing financial statements in line with U.S. GAAP. The hierarchy is broken down as follows:

  • Statements by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and Accounting Research Bulletins and Accounting Principles Board opinions by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA)
  • FASB Technical Bulletins and AICPA Industry Audit and Accounting Guides and Statements of Position
  • AICPA Accounting Standards Executive Committee Practice Bulletins, positions of the FASB Emerging Issues Task Force (EITF), and topics discussed in Appendix D of EITF Abstracts
  • FASB implementation guides, AICPA Accounting Interpretations, AICPA Industry Audit and Accounting Guides, Statements of Position not cleared by the FASB, and accounting practices that are widely accepted and followed

Accountants are directed to first consult sources at the top of the hierarchy and then proceed to lower levels only if there is no relevant pronouncement at a higher level. The FASB's Statement of Financial Accounting Standards No. 162 provides a detailed explanation of the hierarchy.

GAAP vs. IFRS

GAAP is focused on the accounting and financial reporting of U.S. companies. The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), an independent nonprofit organization, is responsible for establishing these accounting and financial reporting standards. The international alternative to GAAP is the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), set by the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB).

The IASB and the FASB have been working on the convergence of IFRS and GAAP since 2002. Due to the progress achieved in this partnership, the SEC, in 2007, removed the requirement for non-U.S. companies registered in America to reconcile their financial reports with GAAP if their accounts already complied with IFRS. This was a big achievement, because prior to the ruling, non-U.S. companies trading on U.S. exchanges had to provide GAAP-compliant financial statements.

Some differences that still exist between both accounting rules include:

  • LIFO Inventory - While GAAP allows companies to use the Last In First Out (LIFO) as an inventory cost method. It is prohibited under IFRS.
  • Costs of Development - These costs are to be charged to expense as they are incurred under GAAP. Under IFRS, the costs can be capitalized and amortized over multiple periods if certain conditions are met.
  • Reversing Write-Downs - GAAP specifies that the amount of write-down of an inventory or fixed asset cannot be reversed if the market value of the asset subsequently increases. The write-down can be reversed under IFRS.

As corporations increasingly need to navigate global markets and conduct operations worldwide, international standards are becoming increasingly popular at the expense of GAAP, even in the U.S. Almost all S&P 500 companies report at least one non-GAAP measure of earnings as of 2018.

Special Consideration

GAAP is only a set of standards. Although these principles work to improve the transparency in financial statements, they do not provide any guarantee that a company's financial statements are free from errors or omissions that are intended to mislead investors. There is plenty of room within GAAP for unscrupulous accountants to distort figures. So, even when a company uses GAAP, you still need to scrutinize its financial statements.