The lockdown accountant

Nury Vittachi

Hong Kong’s humorist on the cost of being an accountant during a pandemic

Pandemics add tedious complexity to many activities in an accountant’s life, particularly if you combine the profession with other jobs, such as arranging murders.

Such was the sad case of Amit Agarwal, a 42-year-old chartered accountant who decided to hire a hit man to help him. But then the virus halted many non-essential industries in his hometown of Kolkata in India – including the contract killing business. Hit men were doing Zoom meetings like everyone else, with no hope of completing assignments except possibly by boring people to death like everyone else using Zoom.

Agarwal went to Plan B, which was to use a snake charmer to supply a different sort of lethal weapon – a snake bite – but serpents don’t do Zoom meetings. He found the right sort of snake charmer – but stricter lockdown rules were implemented, and his handler said he and his pet were no longer allowed to leave home.

Agarwal realized that he would have to take on the job himself, despite the lack of “transferable skills” between accounting and the grim task ahead of him.

The sad ending of the story is that he managed to kill two people and himself, with one victim escaping, according to News18, an Indian news outlet. Agarwal left a 67-page suicide note.

Most accountants, fortunately, have less dramatic activities in their work diaries, many of which CAN be accomplished remotely.

But let’s think of those who can’t. Auditors can have serious challenges with stocktaking, particularly if their clients are farmers, for example.

The Mudanjiang City Mega Farm in Heilongjiang, northeast China, for example, is said to have 100,000 cows – but how an accountant can count them through the webcam on his laptop, I have no idea. The shipyard company Meyer Werft has a warehouse in Lower Saxony, Germany that is so big that people store entire ocean liners in it. Try auditing THAT through a webcam. Of course, drones could be used to do the remote stocktake, but even those only last around 40 minutes on a full charge.

But on the other hand, big companies usually get big accounting firms, who have the money and staff to achieve almost anything.

The firms hit hardest by the pandemic are the small ones. Some are used to their clients handing them a box of receipts at the end of the year, because no part of their businesses are digitized in any way. If you’re an accountant working for a small firm in Melbourne, you’re not even allowed to drive to the client’s house to pick up the box.

At the opposite extreme, the most hi-tech accountants already have everything available “in the cloud” – for them, there’s literally no difference except they now access their data from their beds instead of their desks.

The problems spread when lockdowns become more serious. In parts of Australia, tax accountants who don’t like being trapped away from clients have filed a joint plea to the government to be designated an “essential service.”

This has caused much mirth among down- to-earth Aussies who express cynicism that tax planning is essential in the same way as, say, the firefighter who stops your home burning down.

Luckily, Hong Kong has never had an actual lockdown – but we never know how bad the next wave will be.

What if it’s really bad? What if Earth ends up in an end-of-the-world scenario? Tax planners may be persuaded to elegantly withdraw their plea to be considered essential. Or maybe not. Tax planners are proud people.

A drastic pandemic will also change the value of things, creating lots of work for accountants. During a zombie apocalypse, a room full of gold bars would be worth less than a room full of bananas – or, in accountant-speak, they’d have to “write down inventories to net realizable value.”

Of course, such scenarios might never happen. Yet huge changes are already taking place. The virus has done away with cash, for example. In Hong Kong, people are increasingly using digital money for everything, even tiny purchases, such as picking up a newspaper or a chocolate bar at a convenience store – no germs, no touching.

And, of course, that data goes straight into a computer somewhere which sorts it, files it and ultimately sends it to an accountant – who can do her stuff from the comfort of her bed while binge-watching The Walking Dead.

Oddly, humans love stories of dystopia – even while we live in one.

Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and TV host. He wrote three storybooks for the Institute, May Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the World Economy and May Moon’s Book of Choices

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