Accountancy Profession - Accountants galore

There are more than 2,000,000 accountants on the planet. The UK, with less than 1% of the world's population, has more than 13% of its accountants. Why? Bob Parker investigates

There are accountants everywhere. The table lists the approximate membership of 24 accountancy bodies in 14 countries in North America, Europe, Asia and Australasia. These are a sub-set of the 113 countries and 153 bodies that are members of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC). Even a cursory study of this table allows a number of inferences: there are a lot of accountants worldwide; there are more accountants in some countries than others; in relation to population there are more accountants in 'Anglo-Saxon' and 'Anglo-Saxon' influenced countries than in other countries; many countries have more than one accountancy body.

Preparing such a table brings out three further points: it is difficult to define an 'accountant'; some professional bodies have members in more than one country; some accountants are members of more than one accountancy body.

It is very difficult to put a precise figure on the number of professionally qualified accountants worldwide. IFAC claims that it represents 2,000,000 accountants. Which country has the most accountants? The answer, not surprisingly, is the US. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) alone has over 335,000 members and is nearly three times the size of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. The ICAEW is the second largest body in the developed world, but has fewer members than the Chinese Institute of Certified Public Accountants (CICPA).

There is more than one reason for US dominance. The US has the largest population of the industrialised nations; it has a large equity market economy with, at the same time, an abundance of regulation and a tendency towards legalism and litigation. The UK has a smaller population than Germany or Japan (the world's largest economies after the US), but is the birthplace of modern professional accountancy. It is also a country in which accountants have been very successful in capturing work that might, in other countries, especially in continental Europe, be in the hands of lawyers, engineers or specialist tax advisers. The dominance of the US and the UK is reflected in the names of the Big Five firms. Of the founders' names still preserved therein, only Klynveld and Goerdeler (the K and G of KPMG) and Tohmatsu are not British or American.

The ratio of accountants per head of population is highest in small countries with 'Anglo-Saxon' type financial reporting such as New Zealand and Singapore. The contrast in the table between Singapore and South Korea is quite startling.

Banks v accountants

Why do countries such as Germany and Japan have relatively few professional accountants? In both countries, compared to the US and the UK, the equity market is still relatively small and listed companies relatively few. The main suppliers of credit have been the banks, and the needs of creditors have been rated more highly than those of shareholders. The numbers of professional accountants have been diminished both by the relative lack of organisations for which audits are required by law or expected by custom and the perception that the role of the professional accountant is limited to audit. Where by law and/or custom the role of accountants is so limited, the membership of accountancy bodies is small. Taxation, insolvency and management services are provided in these economies, but by lawyers, engineers or specialist tax advisers rather than by persons called accountants.

Many countries have more than one member of IFAC. For historical reasons, the UK is a leader in the multiplication of such bodies. Despite all attempts at mergers, there are six major accountancy bodies (ICAEW, ICAS, ICAI, ACCA, CIMA and CIPFA).

There is similar if less extreme proliferation in Canada, where the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants (CICA) is the rough equivalent of the three UK chartered Institutes, the Certified General Accountants' Association of Canada (CGA-Canada) is the rough equivalent of the ACCA, and the Society of Management Accountants in Canada ( CMACanada) is the rough equivalent of CIMA. Australia has the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia (ICAA) and CPA Australia, the latter the approximate equivalent of the ACCA, CIMA and CIPFA combined. In all three countries there is little present day rationality in the professional structure.

France and Germany have more than one IFAC member for a different reason. In France the Ordre des Experts Comptables (OEC) is a professional body, although less independent of government than UK bodies, and the Compagnie Nationale des Commissaires aux Comptes (CNCC) is a government body set up to supervise statutory audits. There is substantial common membership between the OEC and the CNCC and the necessity for their separate existence has been questioned.

Similarly, in Germany, the Institut der Wirtschatspruefer (IdW) is a professional body and the Wirtschaftsprueferkammer (WPK) is a supervisory body. Membership of the latter is compulsory for WPs, but membership of the former is voluntary (about 86% of WPs are members). Neither the CNCC nor the WPK is a professional accountancy body in the UK sense but both are members of IFAC.

The compilation of the table assumes that an 'accountant' is someone who is a member of an accountancy body, broadly defined. This is not completely true in any country, although it is a fair approximation of the position in the UK, which has a history of new bodies being formed to attract persons excluded for some reason (not always lack of competence) from existing bodies. In the US on the other hand, licence to practise as a certified public accountant is granted by each state and not all CPAs join the AICPA. In Germany, the IdW is a body of auditors. WPs who become, say, financial directors, cannot continue as members of the Institut.

Exporting accountants

Some countries 'export' accountants (eg, a member of the AICPA working in Singapore) but do not export professional qualifications. It is not possible to qualify as a German WP unless one is resident in Germany. Some other countries, notably the UK and Australia, export not only accountants but also accounting qualifications, thus making it more difficult to count accountants on a country basis. The ACCA, for example, has many members in the countries of the former British Empire who have qualified in those countries and not in the UK. In recent years the ACCA has expanded fast in Central and Eastern Europe. Over a quarter of the members of CIMA qualified outside the UK. CPA Australia has many members in South-East Asia and is expanding in China.

The chartered Institutes in the UK have not attempted to expand in this way, but from the earliest days their members have emigrated to other countries. Currently 39% of Scottish CAs are resident outside Scotland and 15% of them are resident-outside the UK. Some accountants are members of more than one accounting body, so it is necessary to avoid double counting when totalling national figures. For example, as already noted, there is able overlap in France between membership of the OEC and the CNCC. In some countries many accountants are members of a national body as well as the ACCA. In the UK some chartered accountants are also members of ACCA, CIMA or CIPFA.

What of the future? Accountancy is a relatively new profession and the increase in the number of accountants worldwide shows no sign of slackening. Even in the UK the organised accountancy bodies in their modern form have a history of less than 150 years. In most other parts of the world they are much younger.

Bob Parker is professor emeritus of accounting at the University of Exeter

The numbers
Country Population IFAC members Approximate membership
  (millions)   (thousands)
Australia 19 CPA Australia 90
    Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia (ICAA) 30
Canada 31 Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants (CICA) 66
    Certified General Accountants' Association of Canada (CGA-Canada) 29
    Society of Management Accountants in Canada (CMA-Canada) 31
China 1250 Chinese Institute of Certified Public Accountants (CICPA) 129
France 59 Ordre des Experts Comptables (OEC) 16
    Compagnie Nationale des Commissaires aux Comptes (CNCC) 16
Germany 82 Institut der Wirtschaftspruefer (IdW) 10
    Wirtschaftsprueferkammer (WPK) 12
India 998 Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI) 90
Japan 127 Japanese Institute of Certified Public Accountants (JICPA) 13
Korea(South) 47 Korean Institute of Certified Public Accountants (KICPA) 4
Netherlands 16 Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut van Registeraccountants (Royal NIVRA) 13
New Zealand 4 Institute of Chartered Accountants of New Zealand (ICANZ) 26
Singapore 3 Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Singapore (ICPAS) 14
UK/Ireland 59/4 Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) 116
    Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS) 14
    Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland (ICAI) 10
    Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) 72
    Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) 53
    Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) 13
United States 273 American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) 335
    Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) 73
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