Conservatism in Accounting Part I: Explanations and Implications

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SYNOPSIS: This paper is the first in a two-part series on conservatism in accounting. Part I examines alternative explanations for conservatism in accounting and their implications for accounting regulators. Part II summarizes the empirical evidence on conservatism, its consistency with alternative explanations, and opportunities for future research. The evidence is consistent with conservatism's existence and, in varying degrees, the various explanations.

Conservatism is defined as the differential verifiability required for recognition of profits versus losses. Its extreme form is the traditional conservatism adage: "anticipate no profit, but anticipate all losses." Despite criticism, conservatism has survived in accounting for many centuries and appears to have increased in the last 30 years.

The alternative explanations for conservatism are contracting, shareholder litigation, taxation, and accounting regulation. The evidence in Part II suggests the contracting and shareholder litigation explanations are most important. Evidence on the effects of taxation and regulation is weaker, but consistent with those explanations playing a role. Earnings management could produce some of the evidence on conservatism, but cannot be the prime explanation.

The explanations and evidence have important implications for accounting regulators. FASB attempts to ban conservatism in order to achieve "neutrality of information" without understanding the reasons conservatism existed and prospered for so long are likely to fail and produce unintended consequences. Successful elimination of conservatism will change managerial behavior and impose significant costs on investors and the economy in general. Similarly, researchers and regulators who propose the inclusion of capitalized unverifiable future cash flows in financial reports should consider the costs generated by their proposal's effect on managerial behavior.

INTRODUCTION

This paper is Part I in a two-part series on conservatism in accounting. The objectives of this paper are to:

1. Discuss the explanations for conservatism; and

2. Draw implications for regulation and standard setting.

The objectives of Part II in the series are to:

1. Summarize the evidence on conservatism's existence;

2. Evaluate the evidence's ability to discriminate among conservatism explanations; and

3. Evaluate the evidence's ability to discriminate between conservatism and nonconservatism explanations.

The explanations discussion draws on existing literature. However, this paper develops a general contracting explanation for conservatism that encompasses the existing debt contract dividend constraint explanation (Watts 1993) and predicts that other contracts employed within the firm, such as managerial compensation contracts, will also generate conservatism. The paper also offers a new argument that, even without contracting considerations, an information perspective produces conservatism once the information costs of changed managerial behavior are introduced.

Conservatism Defined

Accounting conservatism is traditionally defined by the adage "anticipate no profit, but anticipate all losses" (Bliss 1924). Anticipating profits means recognizing profits before there is legal claim to the revenues generating them and that the revenues are verifiable. Conservatism does not imply that all revenue cash flows should be received before profits are recognized--credit sales are recognized--but rather that those cash flows should be verifiable. In the empirical literature the adage is interpreted as representing "the accountant's tendency to require a higher degree of verification to recognize good news as gains than to recognize bad news as losses" (Basu 1997, 7). Conservatism is the asymmetrical verification requirements for gains and losses. This interpretation allows for degrees of conservatism: the greater the difference in degree of verification required for gains versus losses, the greater the conservatism. …