Positive accounting

Positive accounting is the branch of academic research in accounting that seeks to explain and predict actual accounting practices. This contrasts with normative accounting, that seeks to derive and prescribe "optimal" accounting standards.

Positive accounting can be associated with the contractual view of the firm. [cite book | last =Coase | first =R. | title =The Nature of the Firm | publisher =Economica 4 | date =1937 | location = | pages =pp386-405] [cite book | last =Jensen | first =M. | coauthors =W. Meckling | title =Theory of the Firm: Managerial Behavior, Agency Costs and Ownership Structure | publisher =Journal of Financial Economics, 3(4) | date =1976 | location = | pages =pp305-360] The firm is viewed as “a nexus of contracts” and accounting one tool to facilitate the formation and performance of contracts. Under this view, accounting practices evolve to mitigate contracting costs by establishing ex ante agreement among varying parties. For example, positive accounting postulates that conservatism in accounting –in this sense defined conditionally as requiring lower (higher) standards of verifiability to recognize losses (gains)– has origins in contract markets, including managerial compensation contracts and lender debt contracts. As an example, absent conservatism, managerial compensation agreements may reward managers based on current reports that later evidence indicate were unwarranted.

The contractual view of positive accounting puts it in tension with value relevance studies in accounting: the latter contend that accounting’s primary role is to value the firm, and thus practices like conservatism are sub-optimal. The value relevance school emphasizes the usefulness of accounting information to equity investors in contrast to its usefulness in contracting exercises.

Positive accounting emerged with empirical studies that proliferated in accounting in the late 1960s. It was organized as an academic school of thought of discipline by the work of Ross Watts and Jerold Zimmerman (in 1978 and 1986) at the William E. Simon School of Business Administration at the University of Rochester, and by the founding of the [http://www.elsevier.com/locate/inca/505556/ Journal of Accounting and Economics] in 1979. When published, the pioneering articles were greeted with considerable criticism.


* Christenson, C. (1983), “The Methodology of Positive Accounting” The Accounting Review (January), pp1-22.
* Watts, R. and J. Supreme (1986), Positive Accounting Theory, Edgewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
* Tinker, T, B. Merino, and M. Neimark (1982), “The Normative Origins of Positive Theories: Ideology and Accounting Thought,” Accounting, Organizations and Society 2, pp167-200.
* Watts, R. and J. Zimmerman (1978), “Towards a Positive Theory of the Determination of Accounting Standards,” The Accounting Review 53 (January), pp112-134.
* Watts, R. and J. Zimmerman (1986), Positive Accounting Theory, Edgewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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