Basic Accounting Principles

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify the major underlying accounting principles of consistency, full disclosure, materiality, verifiability and conservatism

What is the Consistency Principle?

The consistency principle states that, once you adopt an accounting principle or method, continue to follow it consistently in future accounting periods so that the results reported from period to period are comparable. However, companies can change an accounting principle or method if the new version in some way improves the usefulness of the reported financial results. For instance, GAAP allows for several different ways of valuing inventory (goods held for sale in the ordinary course of business.)

During the first nine months of fiscal 2008, Home Depot implemented a new enterprise resource planning (“ERP”) system, including a new inventory system, for its retail operations in Canada and changed its method of accounting for inventory for its retail operations in Canada from the lower of cost (first-in, first-out) or market, as determined by the retail inventory method, to the lower of cost or market using a weighted-average cost method. This was disclosed, as required by GAAP, in the footnotes to the audited financial statements.

What is Full Disclosure?

The full disclosure principle states that you should include in an entity’s financial statements all information that would affect a reader’s understanding of those statements, such as changes in accounting principles applied. The interpretation of this principle is highly judgmental, since the amount of information that can be provided is potentially massive. To reduce the amount of disclosure, it is customary to only disclose information about events that are likely to have a material impact on the entity’s financial position or financial results. In fact, the full disclosure concept is not usually followed for internally-generated financial statements, where management may only want to read the “bare bones” financial statements.

What is the Materiality Concept?

The materiality principle states that an accounting standard can be ignored if the net impact of doing so has such a small impact on the financial statements that a reader of the financial statements would not be misled. Under generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), you do not have to implement the provisions of an accounting standard if an item is immaterial. This definition does not provide definitive guidance in distinguishing material information from immaterial information, so it is necessary to exercise judgment in deciding if a transaction is material.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has suggested for presentation purposes that an item representing at least 5% of total assets should be separately disclosed in the balance sheet. However, much smaller items may be considered material. For example, if a minor item would have changed a net profit to a net loss, that item could be considered material, no matter how small it might be. Similarly, a transaction would be considered material if its inclusion in the financial statements would change a ratio sufficiently to bring an entity out of compliance with its lender covenants.

As an example of a clearly immaterial item, you may have prepaid $100 of rent on a post office box that covers the next six months; under the matching principle, you should charge the rent to expense over six months. However, the amount of the expense is so small that no reader of the financial statements will be misled if you charge the entire $100 to expense in the current period, rather than spreading it over the usage period. In fact, if the financial statements are rounded to the nearest thousand or million dollars, this transaction would not alter the financial statements at all.

The materiality concept varies based on the size of the entity. A massive multi-national company may consider a $1 million transaction to be immaterial in proportion to its total activity, but $1 million could exceed the revenues of a small local firm, and so would be very material for that smaller company.

The materiality principle is especially important when deciding whether a transaction should be recorded as part of the closing process, since eliminating some transactions can significantly reduce the amount of time required to issue financial statements. It is useful to discuss with the company’s auditors what constitutes a material item, so that there will be no issues with these items when the financial statements are audited.

What is the Principle of Verifiability?

A company’s accounting results are verifiable when they’re reproducible, so that, given the same data and assumptions, an independent accountant would come up with the same result the company did. Verifiably is the cumulative effect of using historical cost, objectivity, and the monetary unit principle.

Cost Principle

Under GAAP in the U.S., assets are recorded and reported on the balance sheet at their original cost. Although some assets may be overstated, and some, like land, may actually be understated in terms of their actual fair market value, the FASB has determined that reporting assets at their historical cost serves the combined principles of consistency (from firm to firm and from year to year), objectivity, and conservatism. Historical cost is objective because an auditor, or anyone for that matter, could observe the receipt for the asset and come up with the same cost, which is, in fact, one of the tests that auditors perform on major assets.

Suppose a firm purchases land for $20,000 and a building for $100,000.  The combined asset reported on the balance sheet would be $120,000, and any accountant or accounting firm asked to record or verify this amount would come up with the same number, even if one person thought the land might be worth $60,000 and another hired an appraiser to estimate a fair market value of only $10,000. Outside opinions don’t matter in the world of historical cost.

Under International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), the company would be allowed to restate and report the land at fair market value, if that could be established with any certainty (usually by comparing the asset to current sales of similar assets.) This is one of the major differences between IFRS and GAAP. The FASB justifies using historical cost under the standard of objectivity.


The objectivity principle is the concept that the financial statements of an organization are based on solid evidence. This is what got Enron into trouble. The CEO and CFO were basing revenues and asset values on opinions and guesses, it turned out. The auditors were not objective in their assessment of the financial statements, presumably because they were under pressure from the consulting side of the business (Arthur Anderson.) The principles at the firm wanted to keep the multi-million dollar contract with Enron, causing them to be less than independent in their audit.

By using an objective viewpoint when constructing financial statements, the result should be financial information that investors can rely upon when evaluating the financial results, cash flows, and financial position of an entity.

The Monetary Unit Principle

The monetary unit principle states that you only record business transactions that can be expressed in terms of a currency and assumes that the value of that currency remains relatively stable over time. When you are reading a U.S. GAAP prepared financial statement, looking at inventory, for instance, you know you are looking at a dollar figure, not a number of physical units.

What is Conservatism?

The conservatism principle says if there is doubt between two alternatives, the accountant should opt for the one that reports a lesser asset amount or a greater liability amount, and a lesser amount of net income. Thus, when given a choice between several outcomes where the probabilities of occurrence are equally likely, you should recognize that transaction resulting in the lower amount of profit, or at least the deferral of a profit. Similarly, if a choice of outcomes with similar probabilities of occurrence will impact the value of an asset, recognize the transaction resulting in a lower recorded asset valuation.

Under the conservatism principle, if there is uncertainty about incurring a loss, you should tend toward recording the loss. Conversely, if there is uncertainty about recording a gain, you should not record the gain.

The conservatism principle is the foundation for the lower of cost or market rule, which states that you should record inventory at the lower of either its acquisition cost or its current market value.

Practice Questions