Nine Steps to Accounting Research
Step 1) Establish the Facts; Identify the Issues
"The researcher's first task is to gather the facts surrounding the particular problem. However, problem-solving research cannot begin until the researcher has clearly and concisely defined the problem. One needs to know the 'why' and 'what' about the issue in order to begin the research process."(1)
We will use the merger in 2001 between America Online and Time Warner to form Time Warner as our example. Internet portal America Online paid $147 billion for media conglomerate Time Warner in 2001. But the book value of Time Warner's assets was only $51 billion. The enormous $96 billion difference amounts to "Goodwill", or the value of Time Warner's brands, trademarks and other intangible assets, "subtracting an astonishing $1.5 billion a quarter from the bottom line." (2)
How is this "Goodwill" accounted for in the new AOL Time Warner's financial statements? What effect will the new Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) Statement 142 concerning Goodwill and Other Intangible Assets have on AOL's financial reporting? What are the implications of deals like this on the integrity of financial statements used by investors, analysts, regulators, and others?
Step 2) Make a List of Keywords and Concepts
Accounting terminology embodies established accounting issues. Most Handbooks and Textbooks have excellent indexes that will lead you to discussions of the topic and provide you with potential keywords and concepts you can use in your search.
The following Internet resources provide some basic accounting tutorials, which may be helpful before starting your research
AccountingCoach.com Covers more than 30 accounting and financial topics and includes reinforcing drills, Q&A, puzzles, dictionary of terms, etc.
Middle City-Online Accounting Tutorial An online tutorial covering basic accounting principles by Malcolm E White, at Columbia College.
Bloomberg BNA Tax and Accounting Center offers practitioners an array of analysis, news, primary sources, and practice tools covering federal, international, and state tax issues and financial accounting.
Step 3) Find an Overview of the Topic
Handbooks and Textbooks are often the best places to start looking for information on unfamiliar topics. Their mission is to define, explain, and provide examples for students and practitioners. You must be careful about the date of publication. Many accounting issues are in flux and may be under consideration by the accounting standard setters such as the:
Use Business Source Complete (EBSCO), Lexis-Nexis, and The Wall Street Journal to search for well-written articles in journals, magazines, and newspapers. These play an important role in informing professionals and the public about current issues and controversies.
Google is especially good for quickly finding relevant material.
In all cases you must carefully consider the authority, reputation and timeliness of the source of the information.
Step 4) Identify Authoritative Pronouncements
Accounting research relies heavily on authoritative precedents promulgated by recognized standard setting bodies.
Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) is currently making available the full text of the FASB Statements on the FASB Website. Users must agree not to store copies on their computers or link directly to the statements.
Lexis-Nexis has a variety of AICPA Publications including the Industry Audit Guides and the Statements on Auditing Standards (SAS), the Miller GAAP and GAAS Guides, The Journal of Accountancy, the CPA Letter and others. New FASB Statements and AICPA Auditing Standards are published in the Journal of Accountancy.
Both AICPA and FASB make some information about current issues freely available on their Websites. In June 2001 FASB issued Statement Of Financial Accounting Standards (SFAS) No. 14: Business Combinations and SFAS No. 142: Goodwill and Other Intangible Assets, replacing the Accounting Principles Board Opinions Nos. 16 & !7, that previously guided accounting for goodwill in business combinations. Henceforth, all Business Combinations must be accounted for using the purchase method with Goodwill treated as an asset on the balance sheet that must be regularly reviewed for impairment. The pooling-of-interests method is no longer allowed and Goodwill is not amortized.
Step 5) Search for Articles, Case Studies, and Examples About the Issues and Their Implications
Useful online article databases include:
These offer a tremendous opportunity for finding background information, literature reviews, specific examples, practical and public policy implications and other material on virtually any substantive accounting issue. Issues that are more controversial are more likely to be widely discussed in the periodical literature.
A great example for a comprehensive review of Goodwill accounting is: "Understanding Accounting for Business Combinations: An Instructional Resource," by Hugo Nurnberg and Jan Sweeney. Issues in Accounting Education, 22 (2), May 2007. pp255-284.
Step 6) Search the Web
Google will help you locate additional materials freely available. Also, use these websites to find more.
Step 7) Examine the Financial Statements Published in SEC Filings
U.S. and Foreign Companies whose stock trades publicly in the United States are required to file audited financial statements that meet U. S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). These are made available in the SEC's EDGAR database.
Pay particular attention to the Financial Footnotes published in the 10Ks where significant accounting policies are disclosed These are usually found in Note 1. For example, in AOL's September 2001 10Q (quarterly filing) there are numerous references to "goodwill" due to the substantial negative impact on earnings of amortizing the excess purchase price under current rules. In 2002 under the new FASB Statement 143 the charges to earnings were magically transformed into an asset carried on future balance sheets. Reported earnings greatly benefited.
Step 8) Search Investment Research Reports
Goodwill is a good example of an accounting issue that has major implications for investment analysis and strategy. Investment banks all have sophisticated research departments that analyze accounting rule changes for their impact on financial statements, corporate strategy and investment opportunities. Investext in Business Insights: Essentials has a good selection of reports from leading firms including Credit Suisse, Deutche Bank and others that evaluate the impact of changes in Goodwill Accounting. And you will find numerous, detailed reports on all major publicly traded companies - there are hundreds of reports for Time Warner.
Step 9) Putting It All Together
Now you should have command of the topic. You know the accounting terms used to describe the issues. You are familiar with specific information resources. You’ve located overviews, articles and other material that provide a basic understanding and perspective on the issues as well as areas where controversy remains. You’ve identified relevant information sources, databases, books, reports and Web sites and utilized effective search strategies. You know the important published authoritative and semi-authoritative pronouncements and who issued them. You have seen examples in published financial statements. You’re ready to apply all of this information to your specific situation. Refer to the Accounting Guide for additional information.
1.Thomas R. Weirich and Alan Reinstein. Accounting & Auditing Research. 4th ed. (Cincinatti, Ohio: South-Western College Publishing, 1996), 12.
2. Pablo Galarza. "The Goodwill Games." Money 30 No. 13 (December 2001): 61. In Business Source Complete.
3. D.R. Carmichael, Setphen B. Lilien and Martin Mellman. Accountants' Handbook. 9th ed. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999) Volume 1: 17.1.