The accounting concept of measurement

Image by Inactive_account_ID_249 from Pixabay 

Accounting students are understandably keen to put numbers next to everything. But often our students don’t understand why and how numbers are attached to words in financial statements. IFRS uses the term ‘measurement’ (rather than ‘valuation’) to describe the process of quantifying resources and obligations.

Measurement allows us to describe resources and obligations in monetary terms. It allows us to keep count of how well we are performing and facilitates the understanding of the relative values of different resources. We can also make comparisons between different businesses.

So I encourage students to understand that the accounting concept of measurement is just one step, but an important one, in the process of deciding how to report events and transactions in the financial statements.

To put this into context, we deal first with recognition — whether there should there be an asset or liability in our accounts. See posts like this one about the elements of financial statements. Then, if the answer to that question is yes, we then deal with measurement — how to quantify that asset or liability.

Here are some examples that I use in class to illustrate measurement decisions for assets. In a later post I’ll add some examples of how I teach measurement of liabilities. 

Measurement basis

As part of the measurement process, we need to decide what basis we will use to measure our assets and liabilities — for example historical cost, market value, or a value derived from a model. The basis of measurement that we use for our assets should reflect the way in which we expect to obtain economic benefits from those assets and the basis of measurements that we use for our liabilities should reflect the way in which we expect to settle those liabilities.

Cost — vans and other tangible non-current assets

My friend Mavis buys a van to deliver goods to her customers. She knows its benefits will be used up over time. She estimates that the van will last for five years with no residual value. So after one year, one fifth of its benefits will have been consumed, and four fifths will be still available. It doesn’t make sense to include the van at original cost because some of that resource has been used up. 

Our financial statements are a record of past transactions. But the information about those transactions should be relevant; it should be up-to-date so that it helps users of financial statements in their decision-making. Although we might look back to the original transaction and consider the cost of the asset at the point in time where we purchased it, we might sometimes update or modify that amount before including it in today’s financial statements. 

However, it would be no more relevant to measure the van at its current market value. On the day that Mavis purchased the van, she turned the key in the ignition and instantly reduced its market value. But that didn’t worry her because she was never planning to sell or rent out the van any time soon.  (She’s Mavis not Avis.) [1]

Cost — bonds and other financial assets

We can apply the same logic to the government bonds which Mavis bought last week with the money that she had left over after buying the van. It’s easy to find today’s market price of the bonds but that information is irrelevant because Mavis intends to keep hold of them until they mature. She expects to collect the annual interest and the final repayment.

This is why the IFRS effectively requires an accounting policy choice between measuring financial assets like this at either fair value or amortised cost. [2]

Market value — buildings and shares 

Sometimes information about the market value of an asset might be more relevant than information about its cost.

For example the Sankaset Hotel Corporation generates economic benefit from its hotels by renting out rooms to guests. The amount it charges reflects the location, how upmarket the surrounding area is, how well the local economy is doing, and so on.  

And sometimes market value is the only relevant information. For example, shares that we might purchase for trading, in the hope of making a profit when we sell them. Sometimes I test students by asking them if an investment in ordinary shares could be measured at amortised cost. [3]

And so to profit…

If we accept that market value is relevant information, we must also accept that changes in market values are reflected within the income statement. Remember, income (revenue) is defined in the Conceptual Framework as improvements in financial position. That is, increases in assets or decreases in liabilities.

If our assets increase in value then our financial position improves. That is income. We haven’t necessarily sold those assets — we haven’t converted them into cash. But we don’t need to. We understand that they are more valuable to us. 

Of course, to improve the information given to users we may decide to report different types of income differently. We might, for example, distinguish between income from sales (realised income) and income from revaluations of land, shares etc.(unrealised income). But that is an issue of presentation, which is separate from the accounting concept of measurement. 

Notes and further reading

[1] The only reason she is called Mavis is so that I can make that awful joke. Word play keeps me entertained and it also helps students remember what they hear.

[2] IFRS 9 Financial Instruments, paras 4.1.2 and 4.1.2A. But you knew that!

[3] The answer is no because ordinary shares do not have a maturity date so you cannot calculate an effective interest rate. We cannot measure ordinary shares at amortised cost. They have to be measured at fair value.  We can do this easily if the shares are listed but it’s a lot of work if they’re not. 

This is part of the Concepts series of articles


One thought on "The accounting concept of measurement"

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *