The business world totes up how it's doing based on rules known as Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, or GAAP.
Sometimes the real gap seems to be between the principles and reality.
Take this news from the weekend: Radian Group Inc., a Philadelphia mortgage insurer, is going through a bad patch. Despite a first-quarter operating loss of $215.2 million, Radian reported net income of $195.64 million.
To figure that out, you must go through the GAAP looking glass. Thanks to its woes, Radian is less likely to make good on some of its obligations. GAAP instructs Radian to treat this decline in expected payouts as an increase in income.
I'm sure there's a sound, even profound, explanation for this. But sometimes it seems accountants are just playing a rousing joke on us layfolk: Generally (wink, wink) Accepted (nudge, nudge) Accounting (snicker) Principles (thigh-slapping hilarity). Here, let us dab some peach lip gloss on this warthog. Voila! Angelina Jolie!
What if I could make this Radian Alchemy - where failure is a bankable asset - work in my own life?
I'm about to sneak out for a long lunch when a hulking form appears in my office doorway. Uh-oh, it's Sol. He's an emissary from my, er, gambling services coordinator. I just plunged big on the Preakness, relying on my contrarian intuition that Big Brown wasn't really all that.
"Paulie wanted I should stop by," Sol growls. "You were behind before, now you're way under water. When you plan on payin'?"
"Sol, buddy," I shout gaily, "tell Paulie not to worry. I'm about 10 percent as likely today to pay up as I was at 5 p.m. Saturday. That means, according to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, my net worth is up 20 percent! I'll hop over to the bank, get a loan against that equity and be back in a jiff!"
Sol, his huge brow furrowing, steps aside as I sidle out the door.
At 9:25 p.m. on my wife's birthday, the fact dawns on me. I race to the mall, dash to kitchen wares, buy the first fry pan I see, then hustle to CVS for a card (great punch line about crow's feet!). At checkout, I score some complementary gifts: Tic Tacs, an eyeglass repair kit, and some beef jerky.
My wife, awakened from a snooze in the recliner, is stunned by this late-arriving bounty. "I'd already written this birthday off as a total loss," she tells me, beaming. "So you're in luck, Pookie. Under Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, I should treat this pathetic pile of stuff you cobbled together as windfall profits."
I'm playing my usual weekend match at the golf course. The starter, seeing my first-tee swing, mutters, "This yahoo'll be lucky to win one hole." I spend the day spraying low screamers into the woods and terrifying aged groundhogs. I lose by eight holes.
At the 19th hole, I crow to my opponent, "Analysts predicted I'd lose all 18 holes today, but I lost by only eight. So, according to GAAP, that's a net gain of 10 holes. At two bucks a hole, you owe me 20 smackers, but I'm feeling generous, so just buy me a Molson and we'll call it even." Befuddled, my partner raises a finger to the bartender, wondering how it all went so wrong.
My editor stares balefully at his computer screen. "First," he says to me, "boughten is not the past tense of to buy. Dubai is a Middle East oil emirate, not a town in central Nebraska. Adam Sandler did not win a best-actor Oscar for Happy Gilmore. And I'm thrilled you figured out how to type a smiley-face emoticon, but it's not a substitute for the semicolon."
"So," I say sweetly, "just take out the paragraphs with that stuff. That'll take the piece down to 600 words. Which is what you wanted, right? I'm such a pro!"
According to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, at least.