Beware flawed statistics, bad law in our midst

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 July, 2012, 12:00am


HK sales growth slows as mainlanders nip spending

SCMP headline, July 4

Just a quick one here as I have other fish to fry. The chart shows you that the retail sales figures comprise only about a quarter of total consumer spending in Hong Kong. They omit consumer services, web purchases and a great deal else.

Even our statisticians admit it, which leaves me puzzled as to why they keep publishing this pointless series.

But these flawed figures do fully capture spending by mainland tourists, which is why they showed a much higher growth rate than overall consumer spending over the last two years.

And now, with things souring for mainlanders, their spending will be much lower, which has professional worriers wringing their hands about a slowdown in Hong Kong. Things are nowhere near that bad, however, and mainland spending is deducted from our gross domestic product calculations anyway.

Moral of the story: some statistics mislead. You already knew it.

'The accountants are gatekeepers in our financial market as regulators and investors rely on their audit reports.'

Legislator Chan Kam-lam

Commercial Ignorance Party

I have a question on accounting treatment for you. Let's say we are looking at a property investment company with a number of buildings held for rental income.

Most of these buildings are older ones and their cost of construction, including what was paid for the land, is far below what they would be valued at in today's market. How should we carry them in the accounts?

We could be clinical about it and say that, in common with most other assets, the balance shows them at their original cost less depreciation. This, however, would be to put out a balance sheet that shows the company as worth far less than its real value, which would not be a service to shareholders.

Why not carry out a professional survey every year and carry the buildings in the balance sheet at what the survey shows as their present market value?

Good idea, but if we do this, how do we rationalise it with the profit and loss account? The balance sheet could grow by billions in a good year and have investors scratching their heads as to how the firm could have done it without profits to match or fresh calls for new capital. Perhaps we should also show revaluation surpluses in the profit statement.

If we do it without actually selling the buildings, we can have a profit statement made up entirely of paper profits. No money actually changes hands in a revaluation. And if property prices fall, the company may actually have to report a loss for a year in which it actually still made decent profits. What shall we do?

This basic question has been asked and answered in the accounting profession with a generally accepted accounting principle. I won't tell you what it is because my purpose is to focus on the dilemma. There was, and still is, no easy answer. Accounting requires a very large element of judgment.

That's why the traditional audit sign-off states that a company's accounts are a 'true and fair view' of its financial position. No one says it's true in the same sense that one plus one equals two or that the sun rises in the east. It cannot be.

So, no, Mr Chan, accountants are not regulators and your career as a logistics technician with a piece of paper from the Polytech does not qualify you to redefine the profession. If accountants were regulators, Sir, they would be mollycoddled civil servants with immunity from prosecution for their errors. You, on the other hand, want to threaten them with criminal sanctions for mistakes in a profession that, because it relies on professional judgment, is peculiarly vulnerable to accusation of mistake.

The Companies Amendment Bill currently in front of the Legislative Council is bad law.