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In Recession or Recovery, CPAs Face Challenges and Opportunities

Joanne S. Barry

Americans are still feeling the harsh impacts of the recession despite the fact that its unofficial arbiter, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), recently announced that the recession ended in June 2009. Economists evaluated 10 types of indicators—including manufacturing and trade sales, payroll, gross domestic product (GDP), and gross domestic income (GDI) indices—in reaching their conclusion that the economy is no longer contracting.

The longest recession since World War II may be over (NBER pegged a December 2007 start date), but with a listless economy and a national unemployment rate at 9.5%, surveys indicate many Americans are far from enjoying the fruits of recovery. According to the Census Bureau, the number of those living in poverty rose to 43.6 million in 2009 from 39.8 million in 2008. And in a recent Investment News survey of financial advisors, half the respondents said their clients’ financial situations are about the same as they were a year ago, in the middle of the recession.

The recession's start and end dates don't necessarily reflect the beginning and end of the hardship experienced by individuals, of course, nor is NBER claiming that they do. In a statement, NBER said it does not assert that economic conditions since June 2009 have been favorable or that the nation is back to operating at normal capacity. Rather, the organization's data on real GDP and real GDI indicate that a recovery—albeit a slow one—began in June 2009.

Growth has been more sluggish than both the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) earlier projections and in previous recoveries, according to the CBO, which is not surprising given the severity of the recession and the fact that it was triggered by a financial crisis.

New York is a state that relies heavily on tax revenue from the financial sector—the industry hit hardest by the recession in terms of layoffs and capital losses—to balance its budget. The top one-half of 1% of income earners paid about 30% of New York State's personal income taxes during the 2009 fiscal year, while capital gains tax payments from all households accounted for more than one-quarter of all income taxes, according to a recent report in the New York Federal Reserve's Current Issues in Economics and Finance. And those high-net-worth individuals suffered some big losses in bonuses last year, which resulted in a $1 billion loss of tax revenue for New York State in 2008. If the recent dearth of income and revenues from the financial sector is prolonged, the report suggests New York State's budget problems—such as those we've seen during the past two years—could also become long-term problems for New Yorkers.

There's little doubt that most Americans, including CPAs and their clients, are still feeling the pinch. Recovery takes time, and according to the CBO it will be a while before households increase their spending, financial institutions restore capital, and businesses boost investments in plants and equipment and create more jobs. For CPAs, this means the impacts on accounts receivable that NYSSCPA members reported in a March 2009 Trusted Professional article will likely continue. You may need to work harder and more proactively to explain fees to clients or to motivate your workforce, or you may opt to enhance customer service to prevent client defection.

CPAs both in public firms and in industry will soon feel the impact of our government's reaction to the economic crisis that spurred the recession—namely the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Time will tell which aspects of the law will make a positive difference and which, if any, will have unintended negative consequences.

At an NYSSCPA Breakfast Briefing on the New Financial Reform Law held in September, a panel of CPAs as well as an economist and former regulator, weighed in on what some of those impacts are likely to be. It has been estimated that more than 240 new rules and 65 new studies will result from the law. As our Breakfast Briefing moderator, David Herszenhorn of the New York Times, pointed out, the regulations will have a greater impact on the public than healthcare reform, because nearly every dollar invested by the public will be touched by the new financial regulation. With increased regulation comes increased reporting requirements, and all of our CPAs in industry will be called upon to comply.

As NYSSCPA members told the Trusted Professional during the midst of the recession, the best rule of thumb to follow when providing services in tough economic times will serve you well no matter what the markets are doing: Know your client. The CPA profession, for both CPAs in public firms and in private industry, is based upon relationships, but those relationships should not get in the way of good business decisions. Meeting and overcoming the challenges posed by a tough recession can lead to loyal clients and an expanded skill set that will add value to your services throughout your career.

Joanne S. Barry. Publisher. The CPA Journal Executive Director, NYSSCPA, jbarry@nysscpa.org.

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