Thursday, June 26, 1997

Chaos in the accounting world

The way in which accounting information is raised, processed and presented is of unquestionable relevance as an important part of the commercial and economic development of the country. There is a direct relationship between the quality of this information (how it is presented and interpreted) and how the diverse economic agents will act in the interests of the Nation as a whole. A few years ago, the Venezuelan Institute of Certified Public Accountants published their Statement of Accounting Standards No. 10 in which it established “Norms for the inflationary adjustment of financial statements” better known as “reexpresion”. The application of these regulations is obligatory as of the 31st of December 1995 and, in effect, calls for the elimination of the traditional financial information based on historical data.

The object of the following commentary is to call attention to the serious problems created by the application of these standards. In no way is the implied criticism motivated by a blind defense of traditional regulations and the presentation of economic information based on historical data. In the same vein, it is not an effort to establish responsibilities for the chaos caused by the application of the norms, which must evidently be amply shared.

The principal problem is that the immense majority of the players, may they be accountants, managers, directors, shareholders, investment advisors, credit analysts, politicians, lawyers, professors or members of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Bank Superintendency, don’t have the slightest idea of what this is all about, and more significantly, of what the reexpressed financial statements mean. In essence, the blind leading the blind.

All financial statements are applied using “generally accepted principles”. This implies a certain level of awareness and understanding and if these do not exist, there is an evident contradiction and inherent falseness to this assertion. The most extreme example of this is evident in the public accountants, upon who the accountancy board has imposed an obligatory practice without previously insuring that they have previously acquired the necessary knowledge to apply the standards. The most frightening fact is, however, that those few who have managed to gain some understanding of the standards, are in effect those that most seriously criticize them. A minimum amount of caution would call for the simultaneous publication of both reexpressed and historical financial figures, since the latter, although not devoid of problems, still constitute the base upon which the country has developed its analytical capacity.

Another problems is the lack of coordination between the accounting principles and other traditional legal norms. What implication does this have with regards to the Commercial Code (Código de Comercio)? On what basis will dividends be paid out? What financial statements must be presented to public registrars? The answer from the legal establishment for these questions is often “consult your auditors”. Auditors will in turn often say “those are matters to be settled by your shareholders and legal council”. In reality, all these questions should be directed at those who drafted this legislation and, in this sense, we should be asking the Finance Committee of Congress to initiate an investigation and come up with some answers, quickly.

In order to understand the possible implications, it is enough to state as an example that the new accounting principles often result in the reexpression of financial figures to such an extent that a firm posting losses is turned into a firm with positive results and vice-versa. By saying this, I am not implying that the reexpression in these cases is not based on real facts. However, due to the importance and delicate nature of the same, the process should occur under the hands-on supervision of qualified experts and all parties must understand how it works and what it means. As most often happens, however, the reexpression is executed through the use of costly computerized methods, “black boxes” that perform these intricate multiplications and divisions at pentium-level velocities, spitting out the final results, unfathomable to most mortals, and therefore basically useless as decision making tools. 

Perhaps we should be developing simpler alternatives for reexpression based on the saying “lo perfecto es enemigo de lo bueno” and that would allow the survival of accounting methods that don’t require massive computers, software or auditing Swat teams.

Where responsibilities lie if and when fraud is committed through the improper use of reexpression must be closely analyzed. Accountants have previously been limited to simply registering historical facts. Today, prodded by their own accountancy board to interpret figures, they have seen their own quotas of responsibility sky-rocket.

We urgently need to solve the inconsistencies and avoid the dangers of this Pandora’s Box. I realize these comments may seem exaggerated to some, but unfortunately they are true. All that is required to understand the possible implications for the country of this accounting chaos, is a bit of that elusive resource named intellectual honesty. For the benefit of all, lets apply it.

Thursday, June 19, 1997

Hidden Taxation Through Privatization

In moments of light headedness I often tell my friends of my recent nightmare during which my father-in-law, in a gesture of love, gave his daughter and three grand-daughters important packages of shares in CANTV. As a result of this gift, my wife and three daughters, obviously utilizing my already diminished cash flow, dedicate immense amounts of time and effort to the making of phone calls with the firm hope of receiving a dividend from the company. The conflict of interest exemplified by this nightmare, that is to say, the opposite expectations harbored by the consumer of a public service who wants an inexpensive service and the investor who wishes for increased returns, has been ignored in debates over privatization by a State avid for extraordinary income.

In 1991, when Israel awarded concessions to cellular telephone companies, the criteria for these tender awards was the selection of the operator that offered the best and most inexpensive service to the consumer. In Venezuela, however, the sale of public service companies or the letting of concessions for public service operations are based on the maximization of income for the State by means of a kind of tax, payable in advance, and which will be repaid by the consumer year after year through increased tariffs. The results are there for all to see. In Venezuela, the cost per minute of the cellular telephone service is over ten times that in Israel.

Nobody can or should oppose the theory that the State, through privatization, must transfer to the private sector the relative responsibility for its public services. However, when this transfer is made by maximizing the sales price with the principal intention of filling the State’s coffers, we are effectively confronted by a new and strange version of tropical neoliberalization, invented not to serve the needs of the population, but merely to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the state public sector for income” …(or in this case the short-sighted appetite of creditors)

Personally I would not be undergoing monthly taxation by means of excessively high telephone tariffs should the politicians and policy makers have shown less greed during the run-up to the privatization of the CANTV. On top of this, my payments are not classified as “taxes” (and as such they are hidden), allowing politicians to happily continue maintaining the absurd thesis that Venezuela is a country with low taxation. 

In the future it may be interesting to study the management by politicians of the tremendous conflict of interest they have created for themselves. This conflict arises from the fact that on one hand they must comply with promises made to their electorate with respect to low tariffs while on the other hand they have ably served as marketing agents for the sale of CANTV shares, trying convincing whomever would listen of the immense advantages and characteristics of these shares as profitable investments. 

Being a firm believer in the saying that “music paid for in advance cannot not be heard” (musica paga no suena), I cannot but worry about the future prospects of the investment made by the shareholders.

I sincerely hope that some of the concepts relative to the privatization of public services will be revised. For example, I would consider it totally unjust if the Island of Margarita ended up paying the highest tariffs in the world for its energy just to satisfy the need to offer an acceptable return to an investor who would not only be required to invest serious amounts of resources in an expansion and investment plan, but also to maximize the income for CADAFE, FIV or any other state entity by paying an excessive price for his incursion into the local energetic sector. It would not be logical for the state of Zulia to have access to relatively cheap energy just because it happened to be the beneficiary of investments in truncal transmission facilities, while the “poor” Island of Margarita, having been previously abandoned to is fate, must now pay tariffs in accordance to today’s replacement cost of its infrastructure (or worse). We should be looking for certain social-regional justice when it comes to public services and utilities.

To avoid any confusion, I must make emphasis of the fact that my comments are aimed specifically at the privatization of entities that provide public services, i.e. communication, electricity, water, etc.. In cases such as Sidor, for example, it is logical for the State to strive towards the maximization of its income. In the same breath, however, I would also say that it is equally or more important for this income not be misspent.

It is important to note that this article has been written now for a few months. Due to the cowardice of its author, who did not wish to be branded as a party-poop during the collective euphoria of the CANTV days, its publication has been deliberately delayed. I remind all my friends at the Stock Exchange, whom in effect I am indirectly labeling as employees of SENIAT, of the fact that, while the human qualities of Robin Hood are still being debated on, there is no doubt left by history with regards to those of his contemporary, that famous tax collector, the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Daily Journal, Caracas, June 19, 1997

Economía Hoy, 28 de Julio de 1998

A mis amigos, en broma y en serio, les comento sobre una reciente pesadilla en la cual el abuelo cariñosamente le regaló a sus nietas, mis hijas, unas acciones de la CANTV, con el resultado de que ellas, utilizando mi menguado flujo de caja, ahora se dedican durante todo el día a efectuar llamadas con la firme esperanza de cobrar un dividendo. El conflicto de interés al cual apunto, es decir, por un lado el consumidor de un servicio público que desea un servicio eficiente y barato y por el otro lado el inversionista que requiere un rendimiento, ha sido muy ignorado en Venezuela.

Cuando en 1991 se otorgaron las concesiones a las empresas de telefonía celular en Israel, el criterio de adjudicación consistía en seleccionar la empresa que ofrecía el mejor y mas barato servicio al consumidor. En Venezuela las ventas de empresas de servicios públicos o de concesiones similares se fundamentan en la maximización del ingreso del Estado, logrado mediante una especie de cobro de impuestos por adelantado, el cual será repagado por el consumidor año tras año por la vía de tarifas altas. Los resultados están a la vista, en Venezuela el costo por minuto de la telefonía celular supera en mas de diez veces el costo prevaleciente en Israel.

No hay razón para oponerse a que el Estado, por vía de la privatización, transfiera al sector privado la responsabilidad relativa a la prestación de un servicio público. No obstante, cuando la anterior transferencia se efectúa para enriquecer al Estado, al maximizar el precio de venta, nos enfrentamos a una nueva y extraña versión de un neoliberalismo tropical, inventado no para servir las necesidades de los ciudadanos, sino para satisfacer los inagotables requerimientos de ingresos de un sector político estatal.

Hoy, como consecuencia de la venta de CANTV, estamos cancelando mensualmente altos impuestos al pagar tarifas telefónicas superiores a las necesarias de no existir los políticos o el fisco demostrado tanta avaricia en el momento de la privatización. Para colmo, nuestros pagos ni siquiera aparecen registrados como impuestos que son, permitiéndole así a los políticos seguir sosteniendo la absurda tesis de que Venezuela es un país con una baja presión tributaria.

En estos momentos se acaba de anunciar la próxima privatización del Sistema Eléctrico de Margarita (SENE). Entre los anuncios se menciona un incremento de tarifa del 20% para 1999 y una "tarifa especial" para los temporadistas. Por cuanto soy temporadista y sospecho que una "tarifa especial" no se trata de algo bueno sino de algo muy costoso (los políticos han aprendido mucho de los vendedores de tiempo compartido), protesto este nuevo impuesto.

Supuestamente el 29 de este mes anunciaran el Precio Base del SENE, precio mínimo al cual habrán de otorgar la concesión eléctrica de Margarita por 50 años. A los que tienen un interés en Margarita les conviene recordar que por cada dólar que indique tal precio habrá por parte del inversionista la exigencia de un rendimiento y para el usuario la consecuencia de una mayor tarifa. La relación es muy sencilla. Si suponemos que no se hubiese incluido la promesa de un aumento del 20% para 1998 es muy posible que un inversionista pudiese seguir interesado en acometer las inversiones necesarias para que Margarita tenga un buen servicio de luz pero por supuesto tendría que ofrecer un menor precio al Estado.

Alguien puede protestar que el Estado no tiene derecho de vender estos activos por nada. No estoy seguro. La verdad es que los activos eléctricos de Margarita fueron financiados por los ingresos del Estado (principalmente los petroleros) por voluntad propia del Estado y como resultado de la gestión política de distribución de ingresos que se había aceptado. En estos momentos en que el Estado de hecho se esta librando de la responsabilidad de darle servicio eléctrico a Margarita, el que además trate de cobrar por esto me parece mas que exagerado.

Es mas, para el caso de Margarita, antes de que la Isla acepte que el Estado se desentienda de su futuro eléctrico (lo cual de todas formas le habrá de convenir a la Isla) debería exigirle a éste que asuma la responsabilidad de construir un nuevo cable submarino para así asegurar que la Isla también pueda usar energía hidroeléctrica a un precio razonable, tal como se le permite a lugares mas distantes como el Zulia o se le quiere permitir a Brasil.

Muchos de los problemas aquí mencionados surgen de haber encargado de las privatizaciones de los servicios públicos a un ente como el Fondo de Inversiones de Venezuela cuyo objetivo natural debe ser el de maximizar los ingresos. Lástima que el FIV termine logrando sus objetivos en los casos equivocados.
Finalmente desearía comentar sobre la incomoda situación en que se ha colocado el Estado cuando por un lado existe la obligación política de ofrecer tarifas razonables a los electores y por el otro se ha dejado rastros de publicidad que han pregonado a los cuatro vientos (no necesariamente con permiso de la Comisión Nacional de Valores) las inmensas bondades de estas inversiones. De ser cierto el dicho "música paga no suena" o lo que es igual, "impuesto cobrado y gastado no rinde", no le auguro las mejores posibilidades a los inversionistas.

Para evitar cualquier malentendido debo precisar que estos comentarios se refieren a la privatización de empresas proveedoras de servicios públicos. Para el caso de empresas como Sidor, es lógico que el Estado haya buscado maximizar sus ingresos.