EME 801
Energy Markets, Policy, and Regulation

The Basic Language of Accounting

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This is not a course in accounting. But I really recommend that you take one. Accounting often gets a reputation as a monotonous and boring field, and since there is so much number-crunching involved in accounting, there are times when this is true. But to really understand the drivers of how business decisions get made, you need to start with some accounting – because the process of accounting provides the basic language and building blocks for determining which companies, technologies, and projects will ultimately be viewed as successes and failures. The main goal in most of business is to make money, of course, but what exactly it means to have "made money" is surprisingly difficult to define in any straightforward fashion.

The goal in this section is to familiarize you with some of the most basic concepts in accounting. It's meant to get you comfortable with the language of ledgers, not necessarily to convert you into one of those guys with the green eyeshades. And you might even understand why your taxes are so complicated (at least, if you live in the United States).

The website Investopedia has a very nice seven-part introduction to accounting concepts. At this point, you should go ahead and read it, especially the first four parts. Once you are comfortable with that material, go ahead and have a look at Alison Kirby Jones's accounting tutorial, which focuses nicely on financial accounting. The second part of the tutorial, which focuses on the accounting statements of income and cash flows, is most relevant to us.

What we will focus on in this lesson is the practice of financial accounting - the preparation of a synopsis of a company's financial health. The primary tools in financial accounting are a series of tables or "statements" that convey specific information about the financial position of the company. The most important of these statements are:

  • Balance Sheet: Summarizes the financial position of a company - what its assets and liabilities are;
  • Income Statement (or Profit and Loss or "P&L" Statement): Summarizes a company's operating revenues and expenses for a particular time period;
  • Cash Flow Statement: Summarizes outflows and inflows of cash for a company over some period of time - it describes where a company gets its money (i.e., revenues from a product or service; investing activities, etc.). The income statement is generally divided into sections on "operating cash flow" (which comes from the income statement) and "investing cash flow," which is where we will find project capital costs.

The readings for this lesson and some of the online discussion will focus on the company as the unit of analysis for accounting. But virtually all of the concepts that we develop can be applied to a specific project as well. In fact, the main purpose for going through these accounting concepts is so that you can apply them to the evaluation of energy projects, through a series of weekly assignments and (eventually) the final semester project.

The remainder of this section will be devoted to understanding the Balance Sheet and the Fundamental Accounting Identity. The Balance Sheet is just a tabular summary of the net financial position of a company at some point in time (note that this is a fundamental difference between the Balance Sheet and the P&L or Cash Flow Statements, which usually capture financial positions over a period of time, rather than just a snapshot). The Balance Sheet has just two columns - one which measures what the company owns (or its assets, sometimes called credits) and the other that measures what the company owes (or its liabilities, sometimes called debits).

Assets and liabilities, from an accounting standpoint, are just two sides of the same coin. When a company has possession of something that it hopes will net it a future benefit (an asset), that future benefit generates a "claimant" (liability). After all, if a company purchases equipment, supplies or labor, the money for those assets had to come from somewhere. Typical examples of claimants would include lenders (like a bank), shareholders in the company, or even the company's owners if they are the ones that put up money. Table 8.1 summarizes things that would go in the Asset and Liability sides of the Balance Sheet (note that this is just a summary of the figures on pages 3 and 4 of the Jones reading).

Table 8.1: Asset and liability categories on a balance sheet
Assets Liabilities
Cash Accounts Payable
(what the company owes its suppliers)
Accounts Receivable
(what the company is owed by customers)
Claims by Lenders
(what the company owes its creditors)
Inventory Owner's Equity
(anything that the owner or shareholders put up to fund the company)
Property, Plant and Equipment
(PP&E basically any physical plant assets)

One important feature of the Liabilities side of the Balance Sheet is how creditors (lenders) and suppliers are separated from equity owners (the company's employees and shareholders). Creditors and suppliers have claims to fixed sums of money from the company, equivalent to whatever they are owed. Equity owners have a claim to any "residual" income of the company after the creditors and suppliers have been paid. For this reason, equity owners are often referred to as "residual claimants."

Since every asset generates its own future liability, every entry on the Asset side of the Balance Sheet needs to have a corresponding entry on the Liability side. Put another way, Assets (the left side of the Balance Sheet) generally describe investing activities, which are undertaken by the company in order to make more money in the future (well, we hope). But the funds for those investing activities have to come from somewhere. So, the Liabilities (the right side of the Balance Sheet) describe the financial activities that are undertaken to support the investments. The Liabilities side of the balance sheet describes not only the total sum of what the company will owe to various parties in the future, but also what the distribution of those parties is (banks, shareholders, company owners, and so forth).

Owner's equity is the simplest example. If I set up a company with $10,000 of my own money, then the balance sheet on the first day of the company's operations would look like the one shown in Table 8.2:

Table 8.2: Balance Sheet after the initial contribution of $10,000 cash to start my company.
Assets Liabilities
Cash: $10,000 Accounts payable: $0
(what the company owes its suppliers)
Accounts Receivable : $0
(what the company is owed by customers)
Claims by lenders: $0
(what the company owes its creditors)
Inventory: $0 Owner's equity: $10,000
(anything that the owner or shareholders put up to fund the company)
Property, Plant and Equipment : $0
(PP&E basically any physical plant assets)

Here is another example, which builds upon Table 8.2. Suppose now I issue shares of stock in my company, to the tune of another $10,000. I use $5,000 of that money to purchase a piece of office equipment. On the Assets side, I would then have $15,000 in cash and $5,000 worth of PP&E. On the Liabilities side, I would have $20,000 worth of owner's equity. This is shown in Table 8.3.

Table 8.3: Balance Sheet following the issuance of $10,000 of stock in the company
Assets Liabilities
Cash: $15,000 Accounts payable: $0
(what the company owes its suppliers)
Accounts Receivable: $0
(what the company is owed by customers)
Claims by Lenders: $0
(what the company owes its creditors)
Inventory: $0 Owner's Equity: $20,000
(anything that the owner or shareholders put up to fund the company)
Property, Plant and Equipment: $5,000
(PP&E basically any physical plant assets)

As one final example, suppose that instead of using the cash I raised to purchase the $5,000 worth of office equipment, I purchased the equipment half with cash and half on credit from an office supply store. This credit is a promise to pay the office supply store $2,500 at some future point. So, at that point, I would have $17,500 in cash and $5,000 worth of PP&E in the Assets column. As Liabilities, I would have the $2,500 of credit from the office supply store as Accounts Payable, plus the $20,000 in owner's equity. This situation is shown in Table 8.4.

Table 8.4: Balance Sheet following the purchase of $5,000 of PP&E with a mix of cash and credit.
Assets Liabilities
Cash: $17,500 Accounts payable: $2,500
(what the company owes its suppliers)
Accounts Receivable: $0
(what the company is owed by customers)
Claims by lenders: $0
(what the company owes its creditors)
Inventory: $0 Owner's equity: $20,000
(anything that the owner or shareholders put up to fund the company)
Property, Plant and Equipment: $5,000
(PP&E basically any physical plant assets)

You might have noticed that the Assets and Liabilities columns both add up to the same number ($10,000 in Table 8.1, or $22,500 in Table 8.4). This is no accident - the examples collectively illustrate what is known as the Fundamental Accounting Identity, which states that the sum of Liabilities to creditors and owner's equity (which, remember, includes shareholders) must equal the company's total Assets.