To wrap up this 4 part series, I want to go into a little about the actual work itself and what you will be doing. Per usual, I will compare some typical roles in accounting with the typical roles in finance or banking.
In audit, your goal is ultimately to issue an opinion on a set of financial statements of a company. What this means is that for every item on a financial statement you have to dig down into every single sub account within that account, and make sure that each of those accounts are correct. It ends up being like inception where there are a ton of subaccounts, but in the end you have to have enough comfort that the account as whole isn’t crazy off so investors can trust the numbers (we call that free of material (or lage) misstatements).
What you will be doing as an early staff is doing a lot of testing of these accounts. For example the company has an expense account of 10M made up of consulting fees. The client would give you a list of every charge during the period that makes up a total of 10M. You would then use the audit software to select a random sample of those charges, lets say 25 to test. For each of those you choose to test, you will get the client to provide you an invoice from the consulting fiem, a copy of the check the company wrote to them, and then show the check clearing their bank account. If they all check out, the test is completed and the consulting fees account is what I like to call “legit.”
At the senior level (2-3 years) you are primarily focused on project management including making sure things are on schedule, the staff have work to do, the budget is on track, and working with managers/partners, and coordinating tax and advisory services, and also designing the tests for the staff to do. At the manager level (5+ years) and above level you are reviewing on a high level what is being done as well as helping with planning and completion of the audit.
In tax you have a similar hierarchy where the staff prepare a lot of work, seniors review the details, and the manager review at a high level. Tax staff will be performing a variety of services depending on the office they are in and the clients it serves. The most common are corporate returns, partnership returns, individual returns, transaction (M&A) work. You may also be able to work on international transfer pricing or international tax depending on your office. Along with completing the returns which involves considerable communication with the client, you will likely be researching certain tax topics and presenting your findings. The deliverable in the end is of course the return or report.
One main difference between tax and audit is tax can work on multiple projects at one, while audit typically stays on one job through completion. There are of course times when audit seniors and managers have to split time between clients.
FP&A (Financial Planning and Analysis)
In FP&A, you will create reports that help the company measure their current and future situation. Some examples include:
- Projections of the sales of each of the company’s market segments by produce line
- Map out the estimated cash flows of the company over the next 12 months
- Identify expense drivers in the manufacturing process for cost savings
Along with these reports, you could be assisting the accounting staff with the monthly/quarterly close or working on special projects like buy or lease of equipment/buildings. Beware that a lot of jobs that are titled FP&A can really be heavily focused on accounting and financial reporting rather than financial analysis.
The internal audit department of a company is responsible for designing, implementing, and testing the controls they put in place that make sure the company is running properly as well as reporting accurate financial information. This often involves the IT department or IT auditors, as most controls are heavily embedded in the information systems. An example of an automated control would be that when the company scans an item as it is being shipped, it automatically creates an invoice and creates the sale in the financial statements (Cr. Sales, Db Accounts Receivables). An example of a manual control is that before a project manager orders the construction of a new building or equipment, he has to check with someone really high (depending on an org chart) and get approval. The internal auditors in both cases would test some transactions and ensure that everything is working correctly.
This is a less glamorous role, but can actually be a pretty solid gig. You get paid pretty well, work ~40 hours, and in some cases can do “consulting” in implementing and designing controls. Generally not challenging and limited advancement options (Director of IA being ceiling).
Investment bankers (specifically mergers & acquisitions) help companies raise capital through debt or stock issuance, or buy/sell/merge companies. The work at the lower level will be consumed by continuous editing of pitchbooks and financial models. Pitchbooks are presentations that the investment bank makes in efforts to “pitch” investors on a company they are representing and contain a ton of slides about the company, the industry, financial projections, “synergies,” and why it would be a good idea to buy the company. In addition to actually helping to create these pitchbooks and presentations you might actually have to help “create” them – as in work with the printing staff to get these things into a physical copy. Financial models are elaborate excel calculations that show projections and forecasts, many of which are used in the pitchbooks.
Some of the specific tasks you may work on could include conducting capital structure analysis for issuers of debt and equity, financial modelling, assisting in the due diligence process, drafting offering memorandums, road-show presentations (pitch books), and other marketing materials.
The work itself can be mind numbing at times but also builds significant analytically and modelling skills that are in demand of private equity firms and other careers in finance.
Private Equity (PE)
At Private equity firms, which buy and sell companies, the lower level analysts spend their time updating the financial models of portfolio (companies they own) or prospective companies. They will take a deep dive into the performance of these companies as well as looking at the industry and how they stack up. They will help prepare the company for an IPO or exit to another buyer once the companies they purchased have matured. They work closely with investment bankers who frequently offer opportunities to purchase a company they represent.
As you move up in PE you may spend some time on the operations side, where you consult and guide the portfolio companies. The ultimate goal is to sell these companies, so they want someone from the PE firm making sure the changes are implemented to boost the companies profitability and thus the valuation. Another component of PE is sourcing deals, which are the lifeblood of business as they target prospective companies to purchase.
Sales & Trading (S&T)
In sales and trading, the banks facilitates trades for their clients. Initially someone in sales will be in contact with the client, obtaining information about what they want to do (ex buy or sell a stock) and the firm will work through a trader to have the security bought or sold in the market. The firm will actually take a position on the security, and then work to execute the trade by buying/selling all or pieces of it at various prices. Because of this, the firm may take a gain/loss depending on the spread of their purchase and sale, but it will also receive a commission on each sales.
Though the role is driven around the actual sales and trading, like you would see in a movie like Wall Street, Arbitrage, or Boiler Room. While this is a high intensity, fast paced, client facing, and quick thinking environment, there are also other aspects of the job. You could work on preparing client presentations, monitor markets and create sales ideas for clients, (though this is mainly done through the research function), and attend events like investor roadshows and IPOs.
Hedge funds are similar to sales and trading as they deal with the trading of securities, but hedge funds make trades on behalf of the firm itself (and the firm’s investors), rather than to provide liquidity to clients. Given this fact, there is a lot more research that has to be done for each trade. Some of the typical day to day responsibilities, outside of putting millions of dollars on the line may include:
- Pouring through analyst reports on portfolio companies and prospective investments
- Contacting management (or investor relations) of potential investments
- Conducting industry analysis to see where the industry is headed and how the companies you’re following fit in that direction
- Looking at macro-economic factors to get a picture of the markets as a whole
- Create and update financial models of portfolio/potential companies
This ends the 4 part series comparing Accounting and Finance Careers. Have anything to add? Comment below.
Here is the map to each part:
Accounting vs Finance: Part 1 – Career Path
Accounting vs Finance: Part 2 – Compensation
Accounting vs Finance: Part 3 – Lifestyle
Accounting vs Finance: Part 4 – The work (You are here)