What counts in market accounting?

An article in the NYT a few days back brought back one of those nagging little questions that gets at the heart of economic sociology. The article is about balance sheets in the new economy – the question is, how should we account for intangibles? Reputation, value of brand, environmental friendliness, IT investment, innovation, the list goes on:

But because accountants have found it impossible to determine the value or the risk of such assets with certainty or objectivity, official financial accounting rules give intangibles a wide berth.

Instead, each company makes its own valuation of intangibles, guided only by very general accounting standards. “There is not the rigor and uniformity that governs the valuation of ‘tangibles.’ In all cases, there is little relationship to market value,” said Mr. Kossovsky, who is also the executive secretary of the Intangible Assets Finance Society, an advocacy group that is working to develop new standards and practices for monetizing intangible assets.

I agree with this, but I think it’s patently stupid to think that this is either more important or just more because of the knowledge economy. The conventions that go into what ‘counts’ are just that – conventions – and the fact that some conventions, like inputs and outputs, sales and revenue, are highly institutionalized and thus taken for granted is not evidence of new intangibles in a new economy.

What it is evidence of is that there is still a huge opportunity for someone to come up with a better way to talk about the relationship between economy and society. What makes these things ‘intangible’ is not their importance but their distance from seemingly ‘solid’ economic stuff. That one would really believe that earnings is a more solid measure than reputation is a testament to accountants’ persuasiveness and influence over time, not that earnings is solid and reputation is intangible.

Comments are disabled for this post