Academic journal article Accounting Horizons

How the U.S. Accounting Profession Got Where It Is Today: Part I

Academic journal article Accounting Horizons

How the U.S. Accounting Profession Got Where It Is Today: Part I

Article excerpt

Synopsis: Few would deny that the U.S. accounting profession is in a very troubled state. The aim of this two-part article is to explain how and why the profession evolved and changed during the 20th century, with particular emphasis on the last three decades. It is my hope that this article will illuminate the origins and consequences of these changes that collectively brought the profession to its current condition.

This paper reviews, examines, and interprets the events and developments in the evolution of the U.S. accounting profession during the 20th century, so that one can judge "how we got where we are today." While other historical works study the evolution of the U.S. accounting profession, (1) this paper examines two issues: (1) the challenges and crises that faced the accounting profession and the big accounting firms, especially beginning in the mid-1960s, and (2) how the value shifts inside the big firms combined with changes in the earnings pressures on their corporate clients to create a climate in which serious confrontations between auditors and clients were destined to occur. From available evidence, auditors in recent years seem to be more susceptible to accommodation and compromise on questionable accounting practices, when compared with their more stolid posture on such matters in earlier years.

INTRODUCTION

The paucity of available evidence about actual changes occurring within the big firms, especially from the 1970s onward, poses a major difficulty in conducting this kind of research. Without statistical analysis, the court cases, regulatory investigations, and press reports of alleged audit failures can be dismissed by leaders of the profession as isolated instances, not representative of the general way in which the big firms fulfill their professional obligations. Of necessity, I relied on letters from those who do know, on public expressions of concern by leaders of the profession and by regulators, and on the writings by close students of the profession. I formed interpretations and conclusions based on the available evidence, and I welcome comments and reactions from readers.

Three major sections comprise this paper. The first section surveys the evolution of the profession prior to the 1940s, essentially a period of groundbreaking and early development. The second section, covering the 1940s, the 1950s, and the first half of the 1960s, displays the profession at the height of its reputation and influence. The third section, beginning in the mid-1960s, treats the scandals, court cases, the profession's loss of its accounting standard setter and the impact of that loss on the vitality of professional discourse, Congressional criticism, pressures from government to alter the competitive climate of the profession, the burgeoning consulting services, and, in the end, the transformation of the big firms from organizations strongly imbued with professional values to ones that strongly pursue goals associated with commercial and business success. This reshaping of the firms as engines of growth, profitability, and global reach in turn placed added pressure on audit partners, already under pressure to generate fees and to placate clients. Such circumstances exert a severe strain on auditor independence. At the same time, top executives in publicly traded companies found themselves under greatly increased pressure for revenue and earnings performance, which they transmitted first to their accounting staff and eventually to their external auditors. The confluence of these developments inevitably led to the confrontations mentioned above.

PRIOR TO THE 1940s: SETTING THE STAGE

The U.S. accounting profession emerged during the last quarter of the 19th century, the first major accounting body being the American Association of Public Accountants, the lineal predecessor of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, established in 1887. (2) New York State passed the first law, in 1896, to recognize the qualification known as Certified Public Accountant, which, as Carey writes, "marked the beginning of an accredited profession of accounting in the United States" (Carey 1969, 44). …

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