Home' A Plus Magazine : June 2013 Contents 56 June 2013
t happens to all of us. You slip some cash
in a pocket, forget all about it, and a year
or t wo later you find almost US$43 mil-
lion that you’d completely forgotten about.
Of course, the change I find in old pock-
ets doesn’t always add up to US$43 million.
Sometimes it’s more like 43 cents, but you can
buy a lot of food for 43 cents, if you’re not one
of those folk who are too snobbish to visit the
pet food section.
An alert reader told me that an account-
ing error led to the City of Los Angeles losing
US$42.6 million of public money for a couple
of years before it was rediscovered by an ac-
countant. The report, in the Los Angeles Times
last month, didn’t identify exactly where the
money had been, but I’ll wager it was that little
key pocket in your right trouser leg – the home
of much ancient treasure and foodstuffs.
I mentioned this to a colleague named
Vicky, who had mislaid a HK$500 note. As I
helped her search for it, I got thinking about
other massive accounting errors. Probably
the most embarrassing in recent years was
when H&R Block, one of America’s biggest tax
accounting firms, suffered a US$100 million
shortfall after making, yes, a tax accounting
I had been in the newsroom in 2012 when
JPMorgan Chase & Co. announced its esti-
mate of how much it lost in an unauthorized
trades scandal was US$4 billion off. I ’d love to
overhear these guys’ budget discussions with
their wives. “Hi, honey. I only spent about 20
bucks at the bar this evening. No, wait, it may
have been four billion and 20 bucks.”
I asked financial journalist friends to
name the biggest accounting errors they
could remember. One sent me a link to a BBC
inter v iew in which University of California
San Diego anthropologist Geoffrey Bras-
well attributed last year ’s Mayan doomsday
prophesies to accounting errors. “The 2012
phenomenon is essentially an accounting
problem; a misinterpretation of some very an-
cient bookkeeping.” Good try, but no money
was involved, so that doesn’t count.
A second said that Fannie Mae, the mort-
gage lender in the United States, made sev-
eral errors of a billion U.S. dollars or more in
its 2003 accounts. That was better.
A third reporter said that in 2011, German
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble admit-
ted that an accounting error had been uncov-
ered that showed the country was €55.5 bil-
lion richer than it thought. I think that’s got to
take the prize. That is a heck of a lot of money.
I mean, you could buy a small apartment in
Kwun Tong with that.
I wonder if Schäuble has spent it all yet,
or whether it’s worth Vicky shooting off a
begging letter to make up her shortfall? The
discovery happened in October 2011, and no
one can get through €55.5 billion in less than
two years. Except my wife, my daughters and
most of my friends.
Vicky, desperately pawing through her
handbag one more time for the missing
HK$500, then said: “I went to the bank yes-
terday morning and got a thousand bucks
out. Now it’s all gone.”
That’s when I knew it wasn’t missing at all.
There’s no way an Olympic-standard shopper
like Vicky could carry HK$1,000 for two days
without spending all or most of it.
I made her mentally go through all the
things she’d bought in the past 24 hours, and
within one minute, we’d located the money.
It had followed the laws of physics to its in-
evitable home in the cash register of a clothes
shop in Wanchai. “OK,” she admitted. “I spent
it and forgot.”
I told her that it would sound better if she
used professional language. “Get in line with
the big boys. Just say, you made an account-
Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and
TV host. He wrote three storybooks for the Institute, May
Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the
World Economy and May Moon’s Book of Choices.
Get your daily dose of Nury’s humour at www.mrjam.org
Let’s get fiscal
We all make mistakes, but
accountants make them extra
large, says Nury Vittachi
“There’s no way an
Vicky could carry
two days without
spending all or
most of it.”
56 Nury-bp1.indd 60
3/6/13 4:43 PM
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