If you come to accounting from business, as people did up to the the 1920s, you marvel at two things: (1) the ability of the system of ledgers and accounts to identify individual transactions and (2) the inability of the system of balancing of accounts to explain enterprise.

The numbers add up; they just don't get to the sense of things.

They can't. The essential part of any business–its customer and supply relationships–cannot be assessed or even assayed using the calculations of profit and loss, asset and liability. The stock market, with its extraordinary and persistent volatility and seemingly irrational sensitivity to quarterly earnings numbers, is the only mechanism that comes close to even implying what the accurate number of a business's net worth is. The balance sheet and its residual–equity– are worse than a bad guess.

Yet, almost all the "serious" thinking done by economists uses accounting logic for an explanation of how the world does business. Here is a recent sample of the such wisdom:

As an accounting matter, a country's income is allocated to either consumption or saving while spending goes to either consumption or investment spending. These two identities mean that a nation's saving equals its investment spending when income equals spending. Opening up to trade allows a country to have its income exceed its spending when its exports exceed its imports, and this difference exactly equals the difference between saving and investment spending. The insight here is that the gaps between spending and income, between saving and investment spending, and between exports and imports all equal a nation's lending to (or borrowing from) the rest of the world.

The logic is irrefutable; under the system of accounts that economists use, investment must everywhere and always = savings; and the reverse must also be true.

Yet, to the people who invented double-entry (the Italians in the late 11th century), this and the other tautologies of balance sheet accounting would have seemed a bad joke. For one thing, there was no attention paid to the question of number - what defined the unit of account itself?

The primitive minds who were able to lend money to from Milan to London using only ink and parchment thought this was an important question. Accepting the sovereign definitions of money at face value was foolish; even the dimmest wits at the trade fairs seemed to have an amazing ability to estimate how much of the metal in coin was actually precious. 9 centuries later, things seem to have gone backward.

Measuring cross-border financial flows is also difficult. The financial account in the balance of payments is supposed to do this, but those numbers often differ substantially from the current account when they should be of the exact same magnitude, ignoring the trivial capital account. It is easier to measure imports and exports than financial flows, which makes the current account balance a better measure of net financial flows. The relative reliability of the two balances was important last year when China reported net financial outflows from both public (the central bank) and private investors at $143 billion, while the current account implied that net financial outflows totaled $331 billion.


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