January 1, 2024

Defining Materiality in Accounting

In the world of accounting and auditing, there is a concept called materiality. The term materiality essentially means an amount that if erroneously omitted or included impacts the financials of a company to the point where they don’t tell the truth. One very basic example would be if a $1 million revenue small business made a mistake recording their accounts payable and as result, the business has $100,000 of expenses missing from their results. This would be material. If the same exact mistake happened in a multi-billion multinational company, it would not.

When it comes to materiality in accounting, there are many nuances that need to be considered when evaluating and determining what’s material and what’s not. One way to look at materiality from an accountant’s perspective is to determine how much a particular transaction (such as a purchase) or event (such as a lawsuit) will have on a company’s financial performance. Whether it’s an omission or a mistake in calculating and reporting such an event, the way an accountant evaluates and decides how to proceed with reporting the information (or not) can make a big difference in whether or not such information is material or immaterial.

Another way to look at whether information is material or immaterial is to determine if omitting (or through an accounting mistake) such information would mislead or change a person’s actions regarding the company (investing in, providing a loan to the company, etc.). If omitting the information would influence an outside party’s decision, it would be material. If including the mistake would not change an outside party’s decision regarding the company, it would be immaterial.

One consideration is the benchmark a company uses to determine if a transaction or event would trigger a materiality classification. For example, net profit, operating income, total assets/shareholder’s equity, gross profit or gross revenue are commonly used. However, it’s important to keep in mind that operating income might not be the best metric if the business loses money or breaks even or is modestly profitable.

When it comes to looking at net income and a loss, what matters is how big of a percentage the loss represents against the net income. If there’s a $10,000 loss of inventory (for example, due to a termite infestation of a special type of wood) at a furniture manufacturer that has annual sales of $100 million, it would be immaterial and not necessary to report it on the income statement. However, if this occurred at a start-up furniture factory with a net income of $50,000, it would be a 20 percent loss and would certainly make a material impact to investors, lenders, etc.

Documenting Decisions

The next step is for accountants to document their judgments and the reasons why they made each type of documentation. It’s a way for the internal financial managers or the auditor to determine what was done and why. One example looks at whether or not to depreciate or expense an item – for which the materiality depends on the item’s cost.

If an office desk costs $125, depreciating the office desk seems impractical and would likely be classified as a business expense during a company’s tax year. However, depending on the size of a business’ net income, a start-up may consider it material; but an established, publicly traded consumer staple corporation buying the same item would likely consider it immaterial.

Determining (im)materiality is often a judgment call by the financial experts within a company and the auditors who evaluate companies’ financial statements. With a consistent approach, businesses can make measured decisions for their internal and external audiences.