The study, by Cornerstone Research, found that accounting settlements represented the majority of the number and dollar value of total settlements. After two years of relatively low activity, 69 new cases were filed with accounting allegations, compared with 47 in 2013 and 45 in 2012.
At 70 percent, the proportion of settlements involving accounting cases was at its highest level in four years. The share of total settlement dollars attributable to accounting cases rose from 25 percent in 2013 to 85 percent in 2014, returning to a more typical level.
In 2014, more than one in four accounting case filings referred to an Securities and Exchange Commission inquiry or action—the highest level in five years. Last year, 18 accounting case filings involved an SEC action compared to five in 2013.
“The surge in accounting-related securities class actions is particularly notable given the lack of change in the overall level of securities class action filings in the past year,” said Elaine Harwood, a vice president of Cornerstone Research and head of the firm’s accounting practice, in a statement. “The increase appears to be, at least in part, a result of the SEC’s heightened focus on accounting-related fraud as demonstrated by the substantial growth in accounting case filings that refer to inquiries or actions by the SEC.
Cornerstone’s results also show that accounting case filings involving restatements of financial statements reached their highest level in the last seven years—both in terms of the number and as a percentage of total accounting cases.
“The increase in filings of cases involving restatements is consistent with our finding of a relative increase in negative stock price movements surrounding restatement announcements in 2014 as compared to recent years,” said Cornerstone Research senior advisor Laura Simmons. “Overall, the relative increase in stock price drops surrounding restatement announcements may have encouraged plaintiffs to file these cases.”
The number of accounting case filings with announcements of internal control weaknesses was higher than in any of the previous five years.
The Disclosure Dollar Loss Index for accounting case filings with restatements increased to its highest dollar level since 2005. (Disclosure Dollar Loss measures the decline of market capitalization at the end of the class period.)
The energy sector emerged in 2014 as the highest contributor to total settlement value, while accounting case settlements associated with financial firms waned.
The number of accounting case settlements involving Chinese reverse merger cases also declined in 2014, reflecting the fact that filings of these cases dropped substantially beginning in 2012.
Our comparison guide to the leading Web-based accounting and finance packages
Technology moves fast, and if you want to keep your clients, you’d better be able to keep pace with change. Just a few years ago, everyone was struggling to make sense of, and define, the “cloud.” Today, a few years later, your clients (and hopefully your firm) have stopped worrying about defining it, and instead, have started using applications and storage based on cloud technology.
Various forms of social media, along with backup, are probably the most common cloud applications that companies and individuals use. But bookkeeping and accounting are also popular and becoming more so every time you look.
This is by and large for the best. For years, the offerings from accounting vendors shrank from year to year as companies offering software were acquired by others. Many of the founding members of personal computer-based accounting have vanished. State of the Art, Great Plains, BPI, and many others are just history. And along with companies being subsumed into accounting software behemoths, choices have narrowed.
Cloud-based accounting has reversed that trend, especially in the bookkeeping/entry-level area where much of the action is taking place. Choices are better than ever, and there’s a pricing plan to meet almost every need, from free for a single service-oriented operator, to hundreds of dollars a month for enterprise-level companies with sophisticated requirements. What’s really exciting about the applications detailed in the charts (and those from vendors we weren’t able to include) is the depth of features and capability, even in very reasonably-priced products.
The accompanying charts detail some of the major features in offerings from eight vendors. We’ve segregated the information into features that will be most germane to your clients, and those that will be of interest to you in working with the clients that decide to adopt bookkeeping or accounting in the cloud .
In examining the charts, keep in mind that the products listed vary in capability from basic bookkeeping to sophisticated ERP. In many cases, this is reflected in the price, and many of these vendors offer versions with basic capabilities for little or no money, and paid versions with additional features. In all cases, these cloud-based applications are priced using a subscription model, with payments due on a monthly or yearly basis. For many of your clients, this will be an added bonus, as it doesn’t tie them into long-term contracts, or additional charges for support and/or upgrades, and obviates the need for huge expenditures in capital equipment. In fact, with many of the products appearing in the charts, a smartphone or tablet is all the equipment needed (other than possibly a printer) to perform and access all of the features and capabilities of the application.
We’ve endeavored to make the accompanying charts as accurate as possible, verifying the entries with each vendor. But keep in mind that all of these applications are works in progress, and that a feature that wasn’t available at the time the chart was being prepared may have been added in the interim, so double-check with the vendor if you feel that an application is almost perfect for one of your clients. (As an example — when we originally compiled the tables, Xero did not have inventory, but they released it just last week.)
The bottom line …
Accounting Power: Cloud-based applications are the evolutionary descendants of Software-as-a-Service/hosted apps, and AccountantsWorld, the provider of Accounting Power, was one of the original pioneers of SaaS. Accounting Power is a write-up system with client bookkeeping capabilities, and is part of a modular cloud-based set of integrated applications that include payroll and document management.
FreshBooks: FreshBooks is very much more oriented toward basic bookkeeping, rather than true double-entry accounting. It has strong invoicing, time and expense keeping, and optional credit card processing for accepting electronic payments. A large number of partnerships let your clients expand FreshBooks’ capabilities into e-commerce, CRM, and other capabilities. There’s a free version of FreshBooks if your client has simple needs.
Intacct: Intacct is based around a core of financial reporting, offering a modular cloud-based system very similar to mid-market and enterprise in-house applications. Intacct has small-business packages starting at as little as $50 a month, but its portfolio of applications, third-party partners, and scalability will make it particularly worth considering for your midsized clients who are growing.
Kashoo: Kashoo’s entry-level plan provides a good level of features including invoicing, bank transaction downloading, and familiar financial reports such as a balance sheet and income statement. Even this inexpensive plan allows your client to track sales taxes and prepare remittance reports (though not to fill in specific official forms). A slightly more expensive plan adds accountant access and multi-company support.
NetSuite: NetSuite is targeted more toward the mid-market and enterprise-sized businesses than it is SMBs. It offers a suite of cloud-based products including ERP, CRM, and PSA (which is a project management offering that contains project planning and management, as well as time and expense management). Also included under the NetSuite umbrella is e-commerce, and vertical versions of the different components are also available.
QuickBooks Online: In the SMB market, QuickBooks is the accounting application with the largest market share. Like the in-house version, QuickBooks Online offers several editions, with more expensive editions offering more features. New to the QuickBooks approach is an inexpensive online edition for freelancers and contractors that eschews many of the features and offers an uncomplicated way to keep track of what expenses are business and which are personal.
Sage One: Sage One offers two different plans — Sage One Invoicing and Sage One Standard Accounting, which includes invoicing. The entries in the chart reflect features found in Standard Accounting. Sage One isn’t meant as anything more than a basic bookkeeping system. Sage has more robust and comprehensive applications available as both hosted and in-house solutions.
Wave: Wave offers a relatively complete set of bookkeeping tools, and for the most part they are free (you do occasionally get hit with ads for products and services from other companies — that’s what pays the bills). Wave offers several products — accounting, invoicing (and invoicing from mobile devices), personal financial management, and receipt management are all free. Wave does charge for its payroll service, as well as the ability to accept credit card and electronic payments.
Xero: Xero offers three plans, starting as inexpensively as $9 a month and rising to as pricey as $70 a month. The least-expensive plan limits your client to sending five invoices a month, paying five bills, and reconciling 20 bank transactions, while the two more expensive plans remove these caps and add payroll (in seven states) for either five or 10 employees, though additional employees can be accommodated for an extra cost. (Note: Xero also now offers inventory; earlier versions of this story included a table that was prepared before this was announced.)
Microsoft announced the Spring ’15 release of Microsoft Dynamics CRM, featuring enhancements in the five areas of productivity, social, mobility, analytics and knowledge.
The specific updates, announced at the Microsoft 2015 Convergence conference:
The productivity enhancements extend from a seamless and deep integration of Dynamics CRM with Office 365. Among the possibilities, the integration enables Excel “what if” scenarios to update as forecasts right within CRM and the use of OneNote in CRM to improve sales team collaboration.
On the mobility front, the user experience will be a “configure once, deploy everywhere” model that allows users to interact with the same sales processes across all mobile devices. Microsoft has also added a mobile SDK so users can extend and create their own mobile apps.
The analytics update relates to the out-of-the-box integration of PowerBI Connectors for Microsoft Dynamics CRM and Microsoft Dynamics Marketing. With this tool, users can analyze data with interactive dashboards and reports in Power BI.
The Dynamics CRM knowledge updates come with the start of Parature’s integration in the Spring ’15 release, bringing knowledge management to users’ daily service interactions.
Additionally, Microsoft announced that the Dynamics CRM tablet app can now be managed through secure mobility solution Good Technology, providing a container for local data, a secure data tunnel, and the ability to manage secure email and web links from the app. While enabling employees to access the Dynamics CRM tablet app, organizations can now enforce central policy management with tools like device wipe and password management.
Microsoft expects the Spring ’15 release to be available to customers by the end of the second quarter of 2015.
As we get into the final stretch of filing season, it is fulfilling the predictions made at the start.
“This filing season should be a doozy,” predicted Tom Wheelwright, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based CPA. “Between the Affordable Care Act, the new Section 263(a) repair regulations and the inability of the IRS to answer the calls that come in, we are in for one challenging busy tax season.”
Wheelwright, a contributor both to Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad seminars and Donald Trump’s Wealth Builder’s Program, found some solace in an Internal Revenue Service revenue procedure. “Thank goodness for Rev. Proc. 2015-20 that lets small business off the hook from filing 3115s this year to change accounting methods under the repair regs,” he said. “These challenges should give all tax preparers ammunition for suggesting to their clients that they extend their tax returns, evening out busy season for the preparer.”“It’s been a challenging season, with the ACA, and the tangible property regs,” he said. “We knew they were out there and it would be a challenge, and it has.”
Padgett Business Services president Roger Harris referred to recent filing season statistics released by the Internal Revenue Service that show that the numbers are down over last year for taxpayers using professional preparers. According to the IRS cumulative statistics to March 7, 2015, e-filing using professionals was down by 4 percent from last year, while e-filing by self-preparers was up by 5.6 percent.
“I find it hard to believe that more taxpayers believe they can file their own tax return this season,” he said. “It’s more likely that the more complicated returns that require preparers are lagging behind, and they will catch up by the end of the season. They’ll come in later because of the amount of time needed to deal with each individual taxpayer.”
“People seem to be coming in later this year than they did in previous years,” agreed Cathy Mueller, director of operations of Richmond, Va.-based Peoples Income Tax. “Probably the more complicated returns are lagging because people don’t know what to do with the ACA form. Many of those that received letters about their Form 1095-As don’t know what to do, and if they think they may owe money, they have a tendency to wait until the last minute. And then there’s the theory that if Easter is late, people will file late.”
Some taxpayers have to pay part of their premium tax credit back, Mueller observed. “They’re surprised that they have to pay more than $95, which is what the news reports said, but it’s actually $95 or 1 percent of income, so it could be significantly more than the $95 amount,” she said. “When some of the people estimated what they thought their 2014 income would be, they based it on their 2012 income. When they estimated their income they used W-2 income, not realizing that when they went to the marketplace it’s not pretax, so they estimated their income too low.”
Weather has played a part in traffic to professional offices, according to Mark Steber, chief tax officer at Jackson Hewitt. “Some pundits say those numbers [showing self-preparers up while returns filed by paid professionals are down] are hard to explain. Well, it’s not hard for me to explain — it’s the weather! For a good part of the winter in much of the country people just couldn’t get out to go to a tax professional.”
“The patterns will normalize by the end of the filing season,” he said. “This is not the big year that everyone moves to self-preparation.”
“Our Wal-Mart numbers are good, because even with the cold weather, people still need to get out to get bread and milk and get to Wal-Mart,” he said. (The company has 3,000 locations in Wal-Marts across the county.)
So far, the big story about the Affordable Care Act is that it’s not really big news, according to Steber. “There are still stories of delays in Form 1095-As, but our clients are getting their statements from the marketplace exchanges, and their refunds are processing at a normal pace,” he said. “It’s been a pretty good experience with the ACA. We thought a lot more taxpayers would have to pay back the premium tax credit and have lower refunds. In fact, we spent time crafting messages and role training scripts for our training to soften the message, but we haven’t experienced that. About half owe a little back, and half are getting even more credit. There’s no real surprise other than there’s a lot less bad news than we expected to have to deliver.”
Steber advises preparers to pay special attention to major life changes: “We’re seeing more questions from life changes than from tax law changes. They get married, divorced, have a child, take care of an elderly parent or take retirement withdrawals. The software doesn’t always pick this up. The dependent care credit can be not just a child but a parent that needs care. It’s not an uncommon script today that a parent moves in because they can’t take care of themselves. They don’t realize that that qualifies as a dependent.”
“Just one missed or overlooked tax benefit that a preparer finds more than pays for the preparation,” emphasized Steber.
Just about everyone with business clients has had to deal with the tangible property regulations. “It has added a lot of time to return preparation, but there are substantial savings available,” said Miguel Farra, CPA, chairman of the Tax and Accounting Department at Top 100 Firm MBAF.
“It has three major areas — routine maintenance, a safe harbor, and special treatment for 2014 for partial dispositions,” he said.
“An example of a partial disposition is a replacement of the roof to a warehouse,” said Rosa Bravo, a tax partner at MBAF. “Say the roof costs $500,000 and in your original cost of the warehouse you had an amount allocated to the roof, by doing certain computations you can allocate a certain amount of the cost of the building to the old roof and deduct that undepreciated amount.”
“This requires the taxpayer to file Form 3115 for a change in accounting method,” Farra said. “It is a change in accounting policy. The change is the election to treat the roof as a separate asset, whereas before it was treated as part of the whole warehouse.”
“The relief for small-business taxpayers — taxpayers whose total assets are less than $10 million or whose average annual gross receipts for the past three years were $10 million or less — frees them from having to file Form 3115 with their tax return,” said Kimberly Randolph, tax director and tax practice leader at Top 10 Firm CBIZ in Boca Raton, Fla. “However, if they are eligible and they elect not to file, they can no longer make a late partial disposition election. They can’t write off any separately stated assets that were placed in service prior to 2014, and they won’t have the opportunity in any future years to write off any items that they previously capitalized that would now be deductible as a repair expense.”
“It’s important to look at the implications of not filing,” she cautioned.
Rob Grannum, a tax partner and partner-in-charge of the Everett, Wash., office of Top 100 Firm Moss Adams, agreed. “Despite the official numbers, we’ve been busier than normal this season, and a lot of that is attributable to the tangible property regs,” he said. ”It’s been a big learning curve for our professionals and the profession in general. It‘s been a lot to absorb for this filing season.”
“It was a good thing that the IRS came out with small taxpayer relief,” he said. “But there are downsides to the relief provision. If you take advantage of it, you would forgo the opportunity to make a favorable retroactive partial disposition election, because 2014 is the only year that that’s available. We’re trying to help taxpayers balance the complexity of determining the deduction opportunity and changing their method of accounting, versus taking advantage of the small taxpayer relief provisions. You have to weigh both sides.”
The ACA hasn’t had much of an impact so far, according to Grannum. “We’re hearing more from our business clients, and this will continue all year. They want to know what they need to do to comply with the law from a business standpoint.”
“The whole tax season keeps getting more compressed,” observed Vince Mattina, managing partner of Rochester, Mich.-based Mattina, Kent & Gibbons PC. “In the past, the season extended from January to mid-April. Now, with 1099s coming in late from the brokerage houses and the ACA forms released at the beginning of February, [it’s compressed.]”
As an additional complication this year, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services said that they issued 800,000 incorrect Forms 1095-A, Mattina noted. “It causes more of a compression of the tax season. It’s now down to six weeks, rather than the three months we used to have.”
“The complexity added by the ACA has us as tax preparers become police officers for health care, because it affects every tax return that’s filed,” he said. “It continues to add time to tax preparation for the preparers to get the additional documentation needed to confirm that health care is being provided to all clients as well as their dependents.”
Mattina estimates that it adds 10 percent to the time needed to prepare a return. “We notified our clients ahead of time that would be the case, and it’s pretty much happening as we predicted,” he said.
Randy Abeles, national lead for family wealth services at Top 6 Firm McGladrey, concurred. “Tax season is much more condensed than it used to be, as a result of the late issuing of 1099s by the brokerage houses,” he said. “We had to wait until March 1 before we start working on the returns. A lot of our clients will have corrected 1099s, which also adds to the time.”
“Every year, the brokerage houses have to supply more information on the forms,” he said. “The preparer has to break things up into three different baskets on the return, so the return itself has gotten more complicated for the individual who has outside investments.”
“States are becoming more aggressive as they’re looking for more money,” Abeles said. “So as people go into investments outside their resident states, the states are more aggressive in looking at those investments. And if you move to a different state, each state has its own rules you have to satisfy to give up residence in that state. States that are losing people to low or no-tax states are going after them to make sure they follow the rules.”
At the outset of the season, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, noting that the service’s budget has declined by more than $1.2 billion over the last five years, said it would reduce the amount of service that it could provide both taxpayers and practitioners during tax season. Such has proven to be the case, according to CBIZ’s Randolph.
“This is my first busy season back from private industry,” she said. “The cutback in the IRS budget has been extremely burdensome. In the past two weeks, I had to call the practitioner’s hotline for taxpayers that had received notices, and in each instance the wait time was over two hours just to get an agent to pick up. You try to multi-task while you’re on hold, but it is extremely time-consuming, and it is frustrating to have to explain to the client when you can’t get them answers.”
Small businesses should ask these five questions about software when selecting a tax preparer.
Small businesses should be looking to their professional tax preparers for high levels of strategic guidance and specialized attention.
That’s because most small businesses focus on their strength —developing and delivering high-quality goods and services—and utilize financial experts to help them be successful and grow.
Tax preparers have many technology options available that can deliver a wealth of valuable business intelligence from which key business strategies can be developed.
That’s why small businesses must ask questions about technology—particularly the software a potential tax-preparation partner uses—as a crucial component in the vetting process. Partners who operate with the most modern processing capabilities can bring big-business sophistication to small-business operations. Ask these questions about software to find the partner that is best suited for the unique needs of a small business:
How does your software remain current—and keep us compliant with changing regulations?
When tax laws change, financial outcomes often change as well. And this is just as true for small businesses. That’s why preparers who serve small business customers must be operating the most current versions of professional tax software—because the newest software should reflect the most recent tax-law changes.
Even if laws change or forms are updated during tax-preparation season, the preparer’s software should update in almost real-time to reflect those changes—and to keep your tax return compliant.
Is your tax software compatible with my accounting, bookkeeping and other financial systems?
Whether on-site or from a remote location, your tax preparer’s software should, at a minimum, be able to import and export data from your accounting, bookkeeping and other financial systems. This type of system integration automates a number of crucial functions to eliminate manual tasks, save time, improve accuracy—and even boost security because paper forms don’t have to be collected and transported from one location to another. Instead, the majority of the preparation work occurs within a highly secure software environment.
Can your software handle multi-state jurisdiction?
While they may operate on a smaller scale, many small businesses have big footprints stretching across various, often disconnected regions of the country. Ask whether a tax preparer’s software is equipped to help a tax preparer navigate the myriad state-by-state discrepancies and opportunities that exist. Less-sophisticated solutions can leave opportunities—and dollars—on the table.
Does your tax software offer a portal where all document-sharing can occur within a safe environment?
If a potential tax partner mentions the idea of emailing documents back-and-forth, suggest an alternate secure electronic method or opt for printing. Email accounts that are ripe with financial information are a hacker’s playground and can put a small business’s most valuable financial information at risk to third-party and criminal exposure. But tax preparers can now collect documents electronically, through a variety of options, which can eliminate some of the security concerns around email. This capability also expedites the preparation process by alleviating postal delays and reducing in-person meetings. It also gives the small business on-demand access to their archived digital records in the future.
Besides the tax return, what type of intelligent output is available?
Many small businesses approach tax preparers with only one real output in mind—the tax return. But the tax preparation and filing process uncovers a wealth of valuable information that often reveals new financial strategies and untapped business opportunities. So ask your tax preparer about the depth of the software they use—and how their software can enhance their insight and skills to put the business at a competitive advantage.
The software your tax preparer uses has a big impact on small business. By asking the right questions, small businesses can find a tax-preparation partner who is truly equipped with the best technology to help uncover intelligent new strategies and drive new levels of financial sophistication.
Kerri Gibson has over 15 years of tax and accounting industry experience and currently serves as general manager for the ATX professional tax preparation solution. Kerri has been instrumental at Wolters Kluwer, CCH Small Firm Services, where her efforts drive continued improvement in the ATX platform so professional tax preparers can experience a streamlined work flow while meeting the demands of ever-changing tax laws. She has also had product management roles within Small Firm Services and previously served as director of tax development for Drake Software.