Monday, June 13, 2016

Can accounting errors ruin your life? JohnOliver explains how they can.

In this episode Last Week Tonight, John Oliver explores the world of debt buying:

The segment received wide publicity as he tried to out do Oprah by conducting the biggest giveaway on television - he bought $15 million worth of medical debt and forgave it. This article on Fortune does a good job of summarizing the show:
  • US households owe $12 trillion in debt of which $436 billion is 90+ days past due. 
  • Companies who discharge the debt sell it for pennies on the dollar to a growing number of companies that specializes in debt buying.  
  • One company, Encore Capital, notes that in 1 in 5 Americans owes or has owed them money. 
  • Debt that's been paid "come back to life", which is affectionately known as Zombie debt.
There was some controversy, however, about who he worked with to write-off the debt (they noted their grievances here, to which John responded here) and the value of the debt. On the latter count, is it really fair to criticize an act of charity that improved the lives of approximately 9,000 people?  

Nothing good happens in Excel. 
But the segment which is most relevant to us is when he starts talking about how the information is actually sold.  It is sold on spreadsheets. Oliver gets quite dramatic as he shares his his phobia of Excel and notes how "nothing good happens in Excel". He also explains that the spreadsheets are sold "as is"; meaning that the seller does not guaranty accuracy of the information related to the debt contracts being sold.

And that's where the jokes stops.

In the segment, he has footage from interviews with Jake Halpern, who wrote "Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld". The book follows the life of a debt buyer of Aaron Siegel, who is born to a rich family in Buffalo, New York. He takes an array of characters, including his Brandon, who is an ex-con who does that gritty part of work of finding the debt, ensuring its good and collecting on it.

What caught my attention as I was going through book, is that it gave a bit more detail to what John Oliver mentioned about the banks selling the paper "as is". Halpern notes on page 58 of his book (see below for the link to the book), that when Washington Mutual sold Joanna and Theresa's debt to Aaron, the credits awarded against their accounts that were not reflected in the spreadsheet that was given to the debt buyer.

And that's how accounting errors can ruin lives.

When you read the life stories of these two ladies it's heart wrenching to think that a few lines on an Excel spreadsheet could have a detrimental impact on their lives. Some would cynically say this is over dramatic and try to find reason to blame Joanna and Theresa falling into this problem. But I don't think that's fair. When you read the lives of these people, it's clear that they were affected by factors beyond their control. It's really this broken system of debt collection that is responsible for them failing to get the debt relief that they were owed.

The way accounting systems and spreadsheets are designed and operated can have real impact on real people. As an accountant myself, I often wondered what value is accounting in the grand scheme of things. But as Halpern's story illustrates the accountants, bookkeepers, etc. had a real impact on the livesof these two women.

No one is saying that accountants have the same impact on the lives of people the way a cancer specialist does. But at the same time a few a lines on Excel spreadsheet could be the difference between perpetual anxiety and a good nights sleep.

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