Calling accountants to account

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Prem Sikka is in action on the Guardian blog this morning. Maybe it's the fact that we spent a couple of hours on a train together last week, but he's hitting a parallel theme to one addressed here. I've argued economics is not a science. He is arguing accountancy isn't either, arguing that we should reject claims that accounting is somehow neutral and apolitical because that is simply not true but that through such claims accountants continue to disarm critics, dilute possibilities of emancipatory change and wield considerable social power.

This is a flavour of what he says:

The deepening financial crisis is indicative of the crisis of democracy. Corporate elites have hijacked too many public policymaking arenas and show no shame, or remorse for legitimising poor practices. Even worse, as the recent House of Commons Treasury Committee hearing on the role of accounting in the banking crisis shows, they are not being called to account. It is salutary to look at how the elites disarm legislators and journalists to advance their interests.

The global rules, or accounting standards, for company financial statements are made by the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB), a private organisation financed and dominated by corporate elites. The UK's accounting regulator, the Financial Reporting Council (FRC), is also dominated by corporate elites. It appeases its controllers by adopting international accounting standards drafted by the IASB, but without ever explaining the social and economic consequences of its acquiescence.

All banks claim to have complied with extant accounting standards, but their published accounts are opaque. Accounting rules and auditors have allowed banks to show toxic assets at inflated values and keep more than $5,000bn of liabilities off their balance sheets. No bank has published any figures about its assets, liabilities, profits, or losses specific to the UK or any other defined geographical jurisdiction. The UK taxpayer has bailed out banks without knowing the amounts and risks that are relevant to the UK.


Against the above background, the UK House of Commons Treasury examined some aspects of the role of accounting in the banking crisis. The transcript of the hearing shows that standard setters were busy selling the discredited story about accounting being neutral and somehow free of politics. This fairy story has no basis in any fact or theory.

There is nothing neutral about accounting standards. In common with other social practices, they are constituted by politics. Accounting standards are the residue of negotiations and bargaining amongst economic elites and thus reflect their economic interests. Those who finance and control the policymaking structures are always in a position to shape the outcomes. This has enabled them to organise desirable practices off the political agenda. For example, there are no accounting standards requiring banks to report how they avoid taxes or organise their transfer pricing policies to shift profits from to tax havens.

Accounting has done grievous harm to too many innocent citizens and is central to the current financial crisis. Rather than allowing private interests to make public policies, accounting rules should be made by an independent body representing a plurality of interests. Without that there is no prospect of producing transparent bank accounts, or democratisation of public policymaking.

I don't use language in the same way as Prem - but his message is right, especially that last paragraph. The plurality to which he refers is essential now.