Recall that the primary goal of financial accounting is to provide decision makers with useful information. This section identifies the major users of financial statements and describes the decisions they make.
Owners – Present and potential owners (investors) are prime users of financial statements. They continually assess and compare the prospects of alternative investments. The assessment of each investment is often based on two variables: expected return and risk.
Expected return refers to the increase in the investor’s wealth that is expected over the investment’s time horizon. This wealth increase is comprised of two parts: (1) increases in the market value of the investment and (2) dividends (periodic cash distributions from the firm to its owners). Both of these sources of wealth depend on the firm’s ability to generate cash. Accordingly, financial statements can improve decision making by providing information that helps current and potential investors estimate a firm’s future cash flows.
Risk refers to the uncertainty surrounding estimates of expected return. The term expected implies that the return is not guaranteed. For most investments, numerous alternative future returns are possible. For example, an investor may project that a firm’s most likely return for the upcoming year is $100,000. However, the investor recognizes that this is not the only possibility. There is some chance that the firm might generate returns of $90,000 or $110,000. Still other possibilities might be $80,000 and $120,000. The greater the difference among these estimates, the greater the risk. Financial statements help investors assess risk by providing information about the historical pattern of past income and cash flows.
Investment selection involves a trade-off between expected return and risk. Investments with high expected returns generally have a high risk. Each investor must assess whether investments with greater risk offer sufficiently higher expected returns.
Creditors – The lending decision involves two issues: whether or not credit should be extended, and the specification of a loan’s terms. For example, consider a bank loan officer evaluating a loan application. The officer must make decisions about the amount of the loan (if any), interest rate, payment schedule, and collateral. Because repayment of the loan and interest will rest on the applicant’s ability to generate cash, lenders need to estimate a firm’s future cash flows and the uncertainty surrounding those flows. Although investors generally take a long-term view of a firm’s cash generating ability, creditors are concerned about this ability only during the loan period. Lenders are not the only creditors who find financial statements useful. Suppliers often sell on credit, and they must decide which customers will or will not honor their obligations.
Other Users – A variety of other decision makers find financial statements helpful. Some of these decision makers and their decisions include the following:
- Financial analysts and advisors. Many investors and creditors seek expert advice when making their investment and lending decisions. These experts use financial statements as a basis for their recommendations.
- Customers. The customers of a business are interested in a stable source of supply. They can use financial statements to identify suppliers that are financially sound.
- Employees and labor unions. These groups have an interest in the viability and profitability of firms that employ them or their members. As described in Case Study 1.1, unions in the airline industry have recently made several important decisions based, in part, on financial statements.
Case Study 1.1
United Airlines: Employees of United Airlines gained controlling ownership of United’s parent, UAL Corporation, by agreeing to billions of dollars in wage and benefit concessions. The employees needed to estimate the value of UAL so that they could determine the extent of the wages and benefits to sacrifice. Financial statements are frequently used in valuing businesses.
Northwest Airlines: In 1993, Northwest asked its pilots to forgo $886 million in wages and benefits over three years. Northwest’s reported 1993 loss of $115 million played a role in securing the pilots’ agreement. However, in 1997, Northwest reported a profit of $597 million. As you might imagine, the pilots became much more assertive in their bargaining, asking for wage increases, profit sharing, and bonuses.
- Regulatory authorities. Federal and state governments regulate a large array of business activities. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is a prominent example. Its responsibility is to ensure that capital markets, such as the New York Stock Exchange, operate smoothly. To help achieve this, corporations are required to make full and fair financial disclosures. The SEC regularly reviews firms’ financial statements to evaluate the adequacy of their disclosures. Case Study 1.2 describes another regulatory use of accounting information.
Case Study 1.2
California has perhaps the country’s toughest standards for vehicle emissions. One aspect of its program requires the major automakers to generate 10% of their California sales from electric vehicles by 2003. Compliance with this regulation will be assessed from financial accounting information.
The accounting profession views financial statements as being general purpose. They are intended to meet the common information needs of a wide variety of users, such as those in the preceding list.