Hierarchy of GAAP

The Hierarchy of GAAP: Understanding the Foundation of Financial Reporting

When it comes to financial reporting, accuracy and transparency are of utmost importance. To ensure consistency and comparability in financial statements, the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) provide a set of guidelines and standards that companies must adhere to. However, not all GAAP pronouncements are created equal. In this article, we will explore the hierarchy of GAAP and understand the different levels of authority within this framework.

Introduction to GAAP

Before delving into the hierarchy of GAAP, let's first understand what GAAP is and why it is crucial for financial reporting. GAAP refers to a set of accounting principles, standards, and procedures that companies use to prepare and present their financial statements. These principles ensure that financial information is reliable, relevant, and comparable across different organizations.

GAAP is essential for several reasons:

  • It provides a standardized framework for financial reporting, making it easier for investors, creditors, and other stakeholders to analyze and compare financial statements.
  • It enhances the credibility and transparency of financial information, reducing the risk of fraud and misrepresentation.
  • It helps companies comply with legal and regulatory requirements, ensuring that financial statements meet the necessary standards.

The Hierarchy of GAAP

The hierarchy of GAAP establishes the authority of different sources of accounting principles. It helps determine which pronouncements should be followed when there is a conflict between different standards. The hierarchy consists of four levels:

Level 1: FASB Statements and Interpretations

The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) is the primary standard-setting body for GAAP in the United States. FASB Statements and Interpretations are the highest level of authority within the hierarchy. They provide the most authoritative guidance on accounting principles and are considered the gold standard for financial reporting.

For example, FASB Statement No. 123R, “Share-Based Payment,” provides guidance on accounting for stock-based compensation. Companies must follow this statement when reporting stock-based compensation expenses in their financial statements.

Level 2: FASB Technical Bulletins and Staff Positions

At the second level of the hierarchy, we have FASB Technical Bulletins and Staff Positions. These pronouncements provide guidance on specific accounting issues that are not addressed in FASB Statements and Interpretations. While they are not as authoritative as Level 1 pronouncements, they are still considered highly reliable sources of accounting principles.

For instance, FASB Technical Bulletin No. 98-1, “Accounting for the Costs of Computer Software Developed or Obtained for Internal Use,” provides guidance on how to account for software development costs. Companies should refer to this bulletin when determining the appropriate treatment for such costs in their financial statements.

Level 3: AICPA Statements of Position

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) issues Statements of Position (SOPs) to provide guidance on emerging accounting issues. While SOPs are not considered authoritative under the FASB hierarchy, they are still widely recognized and followed by many companies.

For example, AICPA SOP 81-1, “Accounting for Performance of Construction-Type and Certain Production-Type Contracts,” provides guidance on accounting for long-term construction contracts. Companies engaged in construction activities should refer to this SOP to ensure proper accounting treatment.

Level 4: Other Sources of GAAP

The fourth and final level of the hierarchy includes other sources of GAAP, such as industry-specific guidance, technical releases, and consensus positions of the Emerging Issues Task Force (EITF). While these sources may not carry the same level of authority as the previous levels, they still provide valuable guidance for specific accounting issues.

For instance, the EITF Issue No. 00-21, “Accounting for Revenue Arrangements with Multiple Deliverables,” provides guidance on how to account for multiple-element arrangements. Companies involved in complex sales transactions should refer to this issue to ensure proper revenue recognition.


The hierarchy of GAAP plays a crucial role in financial reporting, ensuring consistency and comparability in financial statements. By understanding the different levels of authority within the hierarchy, companies can navigate through conflicting accounting principles and make informed decisions about their financial reporting practices.

Remember, FASB Statements and Interpretations hold the highest level of authority, followed by FASB Technical Bulletins and Staff Positions, AICPA Statements of Position, and other sources of GAAP. While each level may have varying degrees of authority, it is essential to consider the appropriate pronouncements based on the specific accounting issue at hand.

By adhering to the hierarchy of GAAP, companies can maintain the integrity of their financial statements, instill confidence in stakeholders, and ensure compliance with accounting standards. Ultimately, this leads to more transparent and reliable financial reporting, benefiting both companies and the users of their financial information.

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