Generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) refer to a common set of accounting rules, standards, and procedures issued by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). Public companies in the U.S. must follow GAAP when their accountants compile their financial statements.
GAAP is guided by ten key tenets and is a rules-based set of standards. It is often compared with the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), which is considered more of a principles-based standard. IFRS is a more international standard, and there have been recent efforts to transition GAAP reporting to IFRS.
GAAP is a combination of authoritative standards (set by policy boards) and the commonly accepted ways of recording and reporting accounting information. GAAP aims to improve the clarity, consistency, and comparability of the communication of financial information.
GAAP may be contrasted with pro forma accounting, which is a non-GAAP financial reporting method. Internationally, the equivalent to GAAP in the U.S. is referred to as International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). IFRS is currently used in 166 jurisdictions.
GAAP helps govern the world of accounting according to general rules and guidelines. It attempts to standardize and regulate the definitions, assumptions, and methods used in accounting across all industries. GAAP covers such topics as revenue recognition , balance sheet classification, and materiality.
The ultimate goal of GAAP is to ensure a company's financial statements are complete, consistent, and comparable. This makes it easier for investors to analyze and extract useful information from the company's financial statements, including trend data over a period of time. It also facilitates the comparison of financial information across different companies.
There are 10 general concepts that lay out the main mission of GAAP.
The accountant has adhered to GAAP rules and regulations as a standard.
Accountants commit to applying the same standards throughout the reporting process, from one period to the next, to ensure financial comparability between periods. Accountants are expected to fully disclose and explain the reasons behind any changed or updated standards in the footnotes to the financial statements.
The accountant strives to provide an accurate and impartial depiction of a company’s financial situation.
The procedures used in financial reporting should be consistent, allowing a comparison of the company's financial information.
Both negatives and positives should be reported with full transparency and without the expectation of debt compensation.
This refers to emphasizing fact-based financial data representation that is not clouded by speculation.
While valuing assets, it should be assumed the business will continue to operate.
Entries should be distributed across the appropriate periods of time. For example, revenue should be reported in its relevant accounting period .
Accountants must strive to fully disclose all financial data and accounting information in financial reports.
Derived from the Latin phrase uberrimae fidei used within the insurance industry. It presupposes that parties remain honest in all transactions.
If a corporation's stock is publicly traded , its financial statements must adhere to rules established by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The SEC requires that publicly traded companies in the U.S. regularly file GAAP-compliant financial statements in order to remain publicly listed on the stock exchanges. GAAP compliance is ensured through an appropriate auditor's opinion , resulting from an external audit by a certified public accounting (CPA) firm.
Although it is not required for non-publicly traded companies, GAAP is viewed favorably by lenders and creditors. Most financial institutions will require annual GAAP-compliant financial statements as a part of their debt covenants when issuing business loans. As a result, most companies in the United States do follow GAAP.
If a financial statement is not prepared using GAAP, investors should be cautious. Without GAAP, comparing financial statements of different companies would be extremely difficult, even within the same industry, making an apples-to-apples comparison hard. Some companies may report both GAAP and non-GAAP measures when reporting their financial results. GAAP regulations require that non-GAAP measures be identified in financial statements and other public disclosures, such as press releases.
The hierarchy of GAAP is designed to improve financial reporting. It consists of a framework for selecting the principles that public accountants should use in preparing financial statements in line with U.S. GAAP. The hierarchy is broken down as follows:
Accountants are directed to first consult sources at the top of the hierarchy and then proceed to lower levels only if there is no relevant pronouncement at a higher level. The FASB's Statement of Financial Accounting Standards No. 162 provides a detailed explanation of the hierarchy.
GAAP is focused on the accounting and financial reporting of U.S. companies. The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), an independent nonprofit organization, is responsible for establishing these accounting and financial reporting standards. The international alternative to GAAP is the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), set by the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB).
The IASB and the FASB have been working on the convergence of IFRS and GAAP since 2002. Due to the progress achieved in this partnership, the SEC, in 2007, removed the requirement for non-U.S. companies registered in America to reconcile their financial reports with GAAP if their accounts already complied with IFRS. This was a big achievement because prior to the ruling, non-U.S. companies trading on U.S. exchanges had to provide GAAP-compliant financial statements.
Some differences that still exist between both accounting rules include:
As corporations increasingly need to navigate global markets and conduct operations worldwide, international standards are becoming increasingly popular at the expense of GAAP, even in the U.S. Almost all S&P 500 companies report at least one non-GAAP measure of earnings as of 2019.
There are some important differences in how accounting entries are treated in GAAP vs. IFRS. One major issue is the treatment of inventory. IFRS rules ban the use of last-in, first-out ( LIFO ) inventory accounting methods. GAAP rules allow for LIFO. Both systems allow for the first-in, first-out method ( FIFO ) and the weighted average-cost method. GAAP does not allow for inventory reversals, while IFRS permits them under certain conditions.
When a company holds investments such as shares, bonds, or derivatives on its balance sheet, it must account for them and their changes in value. Both GAAP and IFRS require investments to be segregated into discrete categories based on asset type. The main differences come in recognizing income or profits from an investment: under GAAP it's largely dependent on the legal form of the asset or contract; under IFRS the legal form is irrelevant and only depends on when cash flows are received.
Other differences appear in the treatment of extraordinary items and discontinued operations. In practice, since much of the world uses the IFRS standard, a convergence to IFRS could have advantages for international corporations and investors alike.
GAAP is only a set of standards. Although these principles work to improve the transparency in financial statements, they do not provide any guarantee that a company's financial statements are free from errors or omissions that are intended to mislead investors. There is plenty of room within GAAP for unscrupulous accountants to distort figures. So even when a company uses GAAP, you still need to scrutinize its financial statements.
GAAP is a set of procedures and guidelines used by companies to prepare their financial statements and other accounting disclosures. The standards are prepared by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), which is an independent non-profit organization. The purpose of GAAP standards is to help ensure that the financial information provided to investors and regulators is accurate, reliable, and consistent with one another.
GAAP is important because it helps maintain trust in the financial markets. If not for GAAP, investors would be more reluctant to trust the information presented to them by companies because they would have less confidence in its integrity. Without that trust, we might see fewer transactions, potentially leading to higher transaction costs and a less robust economy. GAAP also helps investors analyze companies by making it easier to perform “apples to apples” comparisons between one company and another.
Companies are still allowed to present certain figures without abiding by GAAP guidelines, provided that they clearly identify those figures as not conforming to GAAP. Companies sometimes do so when they believe that the GAAP rules are not flexible enough to capture certain nuances about their operations. In that situation, they might provide specially-designed non-GAAP metrics, in addition to the other disclosures required under GAAP. Investors should be skeptical about non-GAAP measures, however, as they can sometimes be used in a misleading manner.
Conceptually, GAAP is more rules-based while IFRS is more guided by principles. GAAP is used mainly in the U.S. and IFRS is an international standard. The two standards treat inventories, investments, long-lived assets, extraordinary items, and discontinued operations, among others.