The cost benefit principle states that the cost of providing the information in the financial statements should not exceed the benefits that the users get from reading those statements.
It is obvious that every company incurs a huge cost of gathering and organizing financial statements. Typically, companies spend millions of dollars each year to ensure that their financial statements are meaningful for the users.
It is therefore not possible for the companies to include every bit of information about themselves as there is a financial cost attached to doing this. Some information might be irrelevant for the external user to obtain such as the amount a company spends on giving the public a tour of the headquarters. Other information could be too costly to attain.
The cost benefit principle is basically a commonsense rule. Management can ask itself questions like, “Does it really make sense to provide the users of our financial statements with this information?”, “Do the costs outweigh the benefits?”, and “Does the user need this information enough to spend this money on it?”.
These questions will help management to decide between the cost and benefit tradeoff associated with this decision.
Cost of Information
Financial information is expensive to produce. This has two perspectives to it:
- Level of detail: The financial controller of a company should not spend too much time gathering and organizing immaterial adjustments to the financial statements. This also means not including too much detail in the footnotes which is of no interest of the user.
- Type of information: The regulators and standard setting bodies set the type of information they require from the company reports so that companies do not go overboard in collecting excessive amounts of information which might not be useful at all to the user.
An additional consideration that the company needs to take into account while deciding on what information to include in its reports is the time required to do so. If the company takes too much time to report their earnings each quarter because of the need to prepare more information, it will lead to lower utility for the users of the financial statements, since the information is no longer timely.
Examples of the Cost Benefit Principle
There are many situations where a company might need to use the cost benefit principle.
A business has just acquired another entity and some of its open derivative positions as well. An extensive and costly exercise worth $100,000 would be required to model the extent of gains and losses arising from those contracts.
As per the cost benefit principle, the company should choose not to provide this information at this point and instead wait for the derivatives to close out or resolve themselves.
The financial controller of a company gets to know that an employee has been involved in a low-level petty cash theft from the company for many years; the estimated amount of which is $5,000. The audit required to pin down the exact amount would cost $20,000.
The controller applies the cost benefit principle and chooses to skip the audit process since the cost outweighs the benefit.
Company XYZ issues its financial reports in March for its previous period. The statements highlight an error in the previous year’s statement of around $200,000. The precious amount of error would cost $60 mil to pin down exactly. This will mean a huge financial cost for the company for which there is little or no benefit.
As per the cost benefit principle, the company should just disclose the estimated amount in its reports as this would put them in a safe position; since they are still admitting to the potential error without taking on a huge cost to do so.
Cost Benefit Principle in Other Fields
The cost benefit principle has a prominent place in the field of economics as well. The theory in economics states that an action should only be taken by an individual or a company if the marginal benefits drawn from the action are at least equal or more than the marginal costs of the action.
This highlights the opportunity cost and the tradeoff. It is a fundamental tool that economists use to study how “rational choices” are made by individuals.
Suppose Tom goes to the nearest store to buy a video game. There, he finds out that the video game costs $100. Tom remembers that there is another store which is like a 30-minutes away from this one and it was selling the same video game for $80. According to the cost benefit principle tom should only go to the second store only if the cost of the two-way journey is less than $20. Suppose the cost of the two-way journey is $5, this will mean that the economic surplus (which is the marginal benefit minus marginal cost) will be $15.
Therefore, as per the cost benefit principle, if Tom is a rational individual, he would choose to go to the second store and buy his video game from there. The net benefit (or economic surplus) that he is left with is $15.
Cost Benefit Principle Conclusion
The cost benefit principle does exactly what its name suggests which is to highlight the benefits a receiver gets for incurring the cost of a given activity. Some of the key points to remember relating to this concept are:
- An individual/firm should act only if the benefits are more than the costs.
- Critics of the cost benefit principle object that people do not really compute the costs and decisions when taking a decision.
- Some costs and benefits might not be easily quantifiable. In this case, the decision taker should use estimations.