How to Communicate (and Commune) with your CPA

When I started my accounting career back in the mid 1980’s, written business communications were a formal affair, conducted via correspondence carefully tapped out on an IBM Selectric by a highly competent office manager with lightning speed dexterity.  The missive (or missile, in some cases) followed a strict three paragraph format:  introduction, body, and conclusion.  Attachments were provided to elucidate whatever was discussed in paragraph 2, and the composition adhered rigidly to formal requirements (thank you, high school English teacher).

Informal communications which required a back and forth discussion and exploration of ideas were handled in face to face meetings, or over the telephone.  Voice mail did not exist. So, upon arriving at work, a stack of messages would be waiting upon one’s desk, haphazardly arranged on a spiky metal implement which could double as a weapon if needed.  Such messages were the original of a triplicate carbon form, with copies dutifully archived in the client’s file as well as the firm’s master file.

Back then, sometimes the volume of telephone communications from clients could be overwhelming especially during tax season, but we CPAs didn’t have to deal with junk calls or other unwanted communications from unknown individuals.  We relied on our highly competent admin staff to field every communication, and filter out all but that which mattered.

Since then, many extraordinary changes have taken place.

First and foremost:  the volume and detail of information needed to prepare a client’s tax returns increased significantly, more than can be described in this post.  Compliance requirements such as 1099 and 1098,and K-1 reporting and matching upped the number of documents needed to proceed with tax preparation, but represent just a small fraction of the increased complexity of tax law in the U.S. from the 1980’s to the present.

Amidst all of these tax law changes, the internet emerged in the 1990’s, with its related instant communications via email. In 2007, Apple introduced the first iPhone, although BlackBerry (“CrackBerry”) had dominated the smartphone market prior to this.  With the immediacy offered by these new forms of communication, the quality and reliability of such communications seemed to deteriorate proportionally with the increase in technological advances.  The temptation to send out a communique (or a series of communiques) with little detail, and in a reactive mode is, I think, too great even for the most contemplative of souls.

As it turns out, there’s a reason for this.  Humans convey information most effectively in face to face encounters.  That’s how our ancient brains are wired.  Researchers have determined that emails convey only 7% of the information that would otherwise be conveyed in a face to face meeting.  And, voice communications convey about 45%.  Why?  Human brains are programmed to do very complex stuff.  Facial cues, body language, and vocal intonations all contribute to the layers of complexity and meaning in any face to face communication.  Voice communication via telephone has the benefit of conveying the information supplied by vocal intonations.  Who doesn’t want to receive a telephone call from their doctor, as opposed to an email response?  There is a lot of information about trust and caring that can only come through with voice or face to face communications.

And that’s another interesting aspect of communications.  Humans need to determine whether or not they can trust the person they are communicating with.  Face to face communications provide all the cues one can ask for – although many people are still manipulated in face to face encounters by bad actors.

The trust factor that is normally evaluated in face to face communications is apparently replaced (according to research) by the quickness of response in email or text communications – obviously a very unreliable criteria in evaluating trustworthiness.  Having more emails than can be responded to in 24 hours is the new normal for professionals.

What to do?  If you only need to forward documents or send otherwise “inert” information – forward an email.  But, if you really want to explore ideas and share information about changes in your financial situation, pick up the phone and give us a call.  We would like to talk with you.


Accounting Software Set-Up: If It Was Easy, You Did It Wrong

Setting up accounting software and getting it working properly for your business or non-profit organization can earn you a badge of honor.  Or, it can be stumbling block for  bookkeepers, accountants, and CFO’s.

Who should perform the set up and conversion?  Should you run dual systems during the conversion?  Should you ditch your old chart of accounts and start over?  Are you dreading entering in your customer and vendor data bases? Did you budget enough time and money for the conversion?  Or maybe you don’t even know where to start.

I am offering these tips which are based on experience with all kinds and sizes of businesses and non-profit organizations.

Use a checklist

I can’t tell you how important it is to have a roadmap for an accounting system conversion.  Where can you get one?  You can start with the checklist provided by the accounting software manufacturer.  You can ask your CPA for one.  You can go on-line and find one.  Or, you can develop one yourself, a method that I think is best.  However, any checklist is better than no checklist.

Map out a timeline and budget

Do not plan a software conversion during your busy seasons.  Schedule it for the slow times.  Can you import your old data into your new software?  If not, and if you are going to lose your historical data (which these days you should be able to avoid), then you’ll probably need to do the conversion at year end, which may unfortunately also coincide with your busy times.  And, it will probably cost more in time and money than you have in your budget.

Build the bones of the system:  your chart of accounts

The most important detail to attend to is what to do about your chart of accounts.  It needs to be the right size and have the right level of detail.  But how do you know what this is?  A chart of accounts is meant to group your assets, liabilities, equity, income and expenses by broad, commonly accepted categories so that anyone looking at your trial balance can instantly understand the categories used and make meaningful comparisons to other entities.  For example, it is not common practice to have separate general ledger accounts for each employee’s cell phones.  Instead, common practice is to use a general ledger account called “Communications Expense” or “Telephone expense.”  Here is a good overview from Wikipedia.

While there can be an architecture to the chart of accounts, it needs to follow a logical pattern.  If you are going to use departments you need to decide whether you are grouping cost centers or revenue centers.  Revenue centers are true divisions of a company or NPO – both income and expenses are tracked by location, program, or function.  Cost centers involve only tracking costs of a department or function, and not the revenue.  Fund accounting can be even trickier:  if you are using sub-codes to track restricted funds, you can’t use these same codes to track spending by grants.  While a restricted grant may be a sub-set of temporarily restricted net assets, the inverse is not true.   It’s best to think through your architecture before implementation by drawing it out on a piece of paper.

Non-profit organizations have the most complex charts of accounts relative to their size because they are required to report to outside grantors, contributors and governments in ways not required by for profit entities.  Remember:  the more complex your chart of accounts, the longer it will take your bookkeeper to post even “simple” transactions, because each item of income and expense will need multiple sub-codes attached to it.

That is why it is sometimes it is simply not cost effective to try to build an elaborate and integrated chart of accounts that satisfies these requirements.  It can be easier and less time consuming to reserve grant reporting and fund tracking to an off the books solution such as Excel, especially for smaller organizations with limited resources.

Set up your data bases for customers and vendors

Hopefully, you’ll be able to import your customer and vendor data bases from your old software.  But, if not, you’ll need to input all of your vendors and customers names, addresses, and other information into the software, prior to using it.  These data bases form the platform for the accounts payable and accounts receivable subsidiary ledgers.  In some software programs, incorrectly identifying a customer as a vendor, and vice versa, can cause you to lose valuable historical information about that customer or vendor, so it is critical to get these data bases set up in advance, and not input them “on the fly” even though this will be tempting.  You’ll notice that I’ve said nothing about setting up employees.   This is because I rarely recommend that a company or NPO run its own payroll.  A service bureau should be employed to do that for you – it is more efficient, less expensive, and exposes you to far less risk of errors and penalties.  However, you will need to develop a posting journal/process, and you’ll also need controls over the payroll input and output from the service bureau. 

Ready, set, go

Once you’ve got your historical balances, beginning balances and budget information into the chart of accounts, you are ready to start using the system.  Many CPAs recommend using parallel systems for at least the 1st month, but I think that is optional.  As long as you have put in adequate controls and reconciliation processes, you should be able to have confidence in the new system right away.  These controls typically include:  month end bank reconciliations for all bank accounts, month end reconciliations to all subsidiary ledgers (accounts receivable, accounts payable and payroll, typically), daily or weekly management oversight of data entry, user passwords, and control over system access.  Setting up controls is not necessarily intuitive, so it’s usually a good idea to get your accounting firm involved in helping you with this portion of the transition.  Then, you’ll need to train your managers on the new controls and how to implement them.  And lastly, make sure your backup procedures have been tested and are working well – another very important control that is often overlooked.


My Hideous Tax Reform

(With apologies to economist and author Joel Slemrod, author of the paper, My Beautiful Tax Reform)

As an accountant, I get involved in the practical and tedious task of applying tax laws (and related loopholes) to our clients’ fact situations.  Rarely do accountants get the time to contemplate (or fantasize about) tax reform, nor to consider systems used effectively by other countries.  But, before tax season gets truly underway this year, I have been spending some time educating myself about these matters so that I can combine my practical knowledge with the wisdom of economists and policy analysts around the world.

Professor Slemrod has spent many years evaluating our tax system and expresses the view that a business Value Added Tax (VAT), combined with a highly progressive but simplified individual income tax would deliver the best combination of Fairness and Simplicity (my two objectives for tax reform), and would achieve what he calls “elegance”.  He proposes an individual income tax that would exempt most individuals from filing returns, basically by eliminating all deductions and credits, thus broadening the tax base, and then relying on wage withholding to create the proper and equally applied tax to all labor income.  The VAT tax would apply to ALL business income, and at a flat rate.  Shareholders of corporations would be able to get a credit from the portion of their income already taxed at the corporate level, with the goal being to eliminate all double taxes, and to eliminate all preferential treatment now available through special deductions, credits and business entity selection.

Our current system attempts to tax income (roughly defined as increases in consumption power) by dividing it into 3 pots:  labor income, business income, and income from the employment of capital.  However, there is little consistency in how these different categories actually work.  For example, if I am Mitt Romney and earn my income from “carried interest” I get to pay taxes at a flat capital gains rate of 15%.  If I am Warren Buffet’s secretary, I get to pay taxes at much higher rates, depending on my income and deductions, and I also have to pay social security taxes.  Publicly traded corporations are subject to a double tax whenever they pay dividends to their shareholders, whereas when they pay interest to their bondholders, they are not.  If I lose money on a capital transaction, I can’t deduct the loss unless I have made money on other capital transactions.  If I sell my home at a profit, I can exclude the gain up to $500,000 if I am (legally) married.  If I earn all my income from dividends and capital gains, I might not have to pay ANY taxes.  And, if I am a worker earning a good living, I may be subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax and lose the deductions that my neighbor, who earns less, gets to deduct, thus vastly increasing my marginal tax rate.  These are just a few, selected examples of the way our tax system is both complex and unfair.

Fairness in taxation by definition would have to include progressivity as its underpinning.  In fact, Professor Slemrod rejects consumption taxes outright, as they can never be made progressive enough.  By taxing only consumption, such as through a national sales tax, those who would pay the highest effective rate of tax would be the poor and middle classes, who have to consume certain basic amounts in order to survive.  That would be highly unfair, but would admittedly be a simpler tax to administer than our current income tax.

One reason tax reform is so hideous is that anything that affects the federal system will also affect all the states who are connected to the federal system for purposes of defining and determining taxable income.  Any major reforms at the federal level will require these states to seriously evaluate and reform their own systems of taxation.  Another reason is that by trying to achieve simplicity, one may introduce unfairness, and vice versa.  For example, it might be fairer to measure and subtract inflation before taxing capital gains, but now you have introduced a highly complex calculation into the system.  You can eliminate this problem by using a consumption tax instead of an income tax, but as noted previously, a consumption tax is a regressive tax, and thus, unfair.

In order to restore legitimacy and moral authority to our government and its system of taxation, the current system MUST be reformed, and it must become fairer and simpler, yet still provide adequate funds.  Any steps in those directions are to the good, hideous or not.  President Obama’s recent budget proposals include some movements in the right direction:  indexing and making permanent AMT exemptions,  taxation of carried interest as ordinary income (too bad, Mitt), and simplification of the earned income credit.  However, when you read the summary of the President’s budget (spanning 215 pages) you start to feel pretty queasy.  More and more tax expenditures (credits and deductions) are being proposed in a desperate effort to insert more fairness into the system, but the end result is more, and much more, of the same highly complex and unfair system that we currently have.  Can we give up our favorite deductions and tax credits in exchange for lower and more progressive tax rates?   What might be beautiful is restoring the portion of total income taxes once borne by corporations in 1950 (30% of total revenues) from the shockingly low 7% today, something which could be achieved through a VAT tax.


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