Step 1: Identify Key Accounting Policies

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A firm’s industry characteristics and its own competitive strategy determine its key success factors and risks. One of the goals of financial statement analysis is to evaluate how well these success factors and risks are being managed by the firm. In accounting analysis, therefore, the analyst should identify and evaluate the policies and the estimates the firm uses to measure its critical factors and risks. For example, one of the key success factors in the leasing business is to make accurate forecasts of residual values of the leased equipment at the end of the lease terms. For a firm in the equipment leasing industry, therefore, one of the most important accounting policies is the way residual values are recorded. Residual values influence the company’s reported profits and its asset base. If residual values are overestimated, the firm runs the risk of having to take large write-offs in the future.

Key success factors in the banking industry include interest and credit risk management; in the retail industry, inventory management is a key success factor; and for a manufacturer competing on product quality and innovation, research and development and product defects after the sale are key areas of concern. In each of these cases, the analyst has to identify the accounting measures the firm uses to capture these business constructs, the policies that determine how the measures are implemented, and the key estimates embedded in these policies. For example, the accounting measure a bank uses to capture credit risk is its loan loss reserves, and the accounting measure that captures product quality for a manufacturer is its warranty expenses and reserves.

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