If everyone involved in the process of accounting followed their own system, or no system at all, there’s be no way to truly tell whether a company was profitable or not. Most companies follow what are called generally accepted principles, or GAAP, and there are huge tomes in libraries and bookstores devoted to just this one topic. Unless a company states otherwise, anyone reading a financial statement can make the assumption that company has used GAAP.
If GAAP are not the principles used for preparing financial statements, then a business needs to make clear which other form of accounting they’re used and are bound to avoid using titles in its financial statements that could mislead the person examining it.
GAAP are the gold standard for preparing financial statement. Not disclosing that it has used principles other than GAAP makes a company legally liable for any misleading or misunderstood data. These principles have been fine-tuned over decades and have effectively governed accounting methods and the financial reporting systems of businesses. Different principles have been established for different types of business entities, such for-profit and not-for-profit companies, governments and other enterprises.
GAAP are not cut and dried, however. They’re guidelines and as such are often open to interpretation. Estimates have to be made at times, and they require good faith efforts towards accuracy. You’ve surely heard the phrase “creative accounting” and this is when a company pushes the envelope a little (or a lot) to make their business look more profitable than it might actually be. This is also called massaging the numbers. This can get out of control and quickly turn into accounting fraud, which is also called cooking the books. The results of these practices can be devastating and ruin hundreds and thousands of lives, as in the cases of Enron, Rite Aid and others.
The history of it is thousands of years old and can be traced to ancient civilizations. The early development of accounting dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, and is closely related to developments in writing, counting and money; there is also evidence for early forms of bookkeeping in ancient Iran, and early auditing systems by the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians. By the time of the Emperor Augustus, the Roman government had access to detailed financial information.
Double-entry bookkeeping developed in medieval Europe, and accounting split into financial accounting and management accounting with the development of joint-stock companies. The first work on a double-entry bookkeeping system was published in Italy, by Luca Pacioli. It began to transition into an organized profession in the nineteenth century, with local professional bodies in England merging to form the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales in 1880.