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The victory of the Prussian railway "dynamic" accounting over the public finance and patrimonial accounting models (1838-1884): an early illustration of the appearance of the second stage of capitalist financial accounting and a testimony against the agency and the market for excuses theories.

Abstract: The history of accounting for private railway companies in Germany shows that these companies played a major role in the diffusion of historical cost accounting principles and gave birth, together with big other joint stock companies, to the "dynamic" or second stage of capitalist accounting, at least in continental Europe.

If the representatives of such railway companies did not develop new concepts of accounting, notably as concerned depreciation, they had, by 1875-1879, elaborated a new theory of accounting (historical cost or dynamic theory). This theory had a profound impact at least on the German theorists of the late 19tb century and early 20tb centuries such as Simon, Rieger and Schmalenbach.

This new theory was needed to justify a new law favoring shareholders in a hun-y for returns on their investments rather than company creditors. It also defeated the ideology of public finance and patrimonial (or static) theories of accounting. This new theory preceded the law which promulgated the new approach and clearly defended the private interests of shareholders as opposed to those of the public in the strict sense. It appears to contradict Watts and Zimmermann's basic hypothesis of the <<theory of market excuses>>. Agency theory seemingly does not to apply either, for the new theory was proposed by managers allied to shareholders, specifically those <<hurried share-holders>>, against creditors. This is why a kind of <<theory of alliance>> appears to be more consistent with these developments. The main reasons for developing the new accounting theory were linked to the issue of dividends. It was necessary to find an accounting approach which would allow the distribution of dividends at the very beginning of an investment cycle. It was also intended to find an accounting approach which would ensure that profits were distributed as evenly as possible throughout the entire investment cycle and among the different shareholders who had financed the investment.

Hence, the second stage of the capitalist accounting development was not connected to measure of performance or information problems (monitoring and bonding) but seems to have been caused by the need to regulate profits and dividends in the interests of managers and shareholders. However, as this change took place within the framework of prudence, it was impossible, at that stage of capitalist accounting, to achieve a perfect smoothing of the rate of accounting profit. The solution to this problem was only to be found at the end of the 20rh century with the onset of the third or actuarial stage and the "discovery" of fair value.

Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank the two anonymous referees for their very useful comments on earlier versions of this paper.


Accounting for railway companies is considered to have played a major role in the evolution of accounting thought and practice. This role increased, at least from a theoretical point of view, as leaders of the positivist school referring to Anglo-Saxon accounting literature concerning railways, demonstrate that accounting theories are normative and used as excuses for political action [Watts and Zimmerman, 1979, pp. 273 and 290].

In America and England the history of railway accounting is relatively well known thanks to a wide range of references written over the last seventy five years [Mason ,1933],[Littleton ,1933],[May, 1936],[Pollins, 1956],[Brief, 1966,1967],[Kitchen, 197 4],[Boockholdt, 1978],[Glynn, 1984],[Edwards, 1985,1986,1989] and [Bryer, 1991]. By contrast, recent literature on the history of accounting for German railway companies is sparse and does not deal with the subject specifically [Oberbrinckmann, 1990], [Schneider, 1987]. There is also some older rather technical literature which is rarely referred to because it is written in German [Reden, 1843], [Passow, 1919], [Barth, 1953] and [Mieles, 1932]. However, this history deserves to be brought to light and made accessible to a larger public in the context of the modern debate about the political and social roles of accounting. It is our intention to fulfil this double task of exhumation and reinterpretation of the history of German railway accounting. Here we focus on the history of private Prussian railway companies which have played such a major role in the development of the German railway system. Our period of study starts in 1838 which coincides with the passing of the first law on accounting for railways and ends in 1884 with the passing of the joint stock law. The latter law was very important, marking a key turning point in the history of German accounting, under the influence of railway managers and their shareholders. Our objective is mainly to respond to traditional questions that have been raised in Anglo- American literature. A first group of questions concerns the role played by railway accounting in the diffusion of new accounting techniques and the reasons why a specific system of accounting has appeared. A second group of questions focuses on theoretical problems: did the development of the Prussian approach to railway accounting influence the developments on any specific accounting theory? If this is the case, does the thesis developed by Watts and Zimmerman according to which "accounting theory satisfies the demand for excuses" apply in the German or Prussian case? In a more general sense does agency theory suit the role played by social actors (managers, creditors and shareholders) in the development of a new accounting philosophy?

Presently, Germany, from an accounting point of view, is characterised as a "code law" country [Nobes, 1992]. This feature is not new and applies to Prussian railway accounting which was strictly regulated with an impressive number of specific or general laws passed in 1838, 1839, 1843, 1861, 1870 and 1884. Each law was the ground for lawyers who defended different positions concerning accounting. The study of this invaluable material will constitute the object of the first part of this article following a brief presentation of the historical background. The second part will be devoted to answering the questions we have previously listed.


In Prussia, at the end of the 1820s and the beginning of the 1830s, the very first railway lines were constructed and managed by private companies (1). This situation lasted up to the end of the 1840s when the State began either to buy (and manage) some companies, such as the Ostbahn and the Saarbruckereisenbahn, or to take over the management of some private companies, such as the Aachen-Dusseldorfer and the Bergisch-Markischen railway companies [Mieles, 1932, p. 37]. However, by 1862, the role of the State was not yet dominant as illustrated by the following summary [Steitz 1974, p. 90 quoting Kech's Eisenbahnpolitik]:

fully owned and managed by the State: 1562 km

privately owned but managed by the State: 1355 km

fully owned and managed by private companies: 3050 km

It was only during the nineties that the State, in the context of an economic crisis, took the lead through substantial purchases of private railway companies. This progressive growth of government control culminated in the complete nationalisation of the last remaining private railway companies. In this study, which ends with the joint stock law of 1884, we are only dealing with privately owned railway companies.

Through-out this period, and especially during the thirties and the forties, the main problem with German private rail companies was one of financing. The private companies had hoped that the government would finance their operations with state-bonds (2) but until 1842 this was difficult because of the law of "January 17, 1820" (Staats-schuldenedikt) which forced the Prussian authorities to ask for special authorisation from the Parliament [Steitz, 1974, p.170]. So, realistically, up to the forties, private rail companies had depended on private capital. The challenge was not so much a lack of capital as a problem of profits. As Hansemann, a proprietor of textile and insurance companies of Aachen, and one of the founders of the Koln-Mindener (Cologne-Minder) railway company put it, the crucial point was not the capital but the "hope for profits" [Hansemann, 1837, p. 30]. For most potential capitalists, at least, the expectation of profits was for rapid profits if not an immediate return on their investment [Steitz, 1974, pp. 31 and 52].

This demand for immediate and "guaranteed" profits not only clashed with the risk taking approach of "true capitalists" but was also in total conflict with the nature of investments in rail companies which require long periods of construction and also some difficulties at first to have an effective management. As the German history of railways shows, as soon as the hope for rapid profits vanished, many capitalists refused to go on financing the capital already subscribed (3) and sometimes preferred to demand the dissolution of the company. Among the main well known illustrations of this kind of situation, is the case of the Leipzig-Dresdener Eisenbahn, whose Magdeburg's shareholders led a campaign in the newspapers in 1839 to demand a general assembly to decide on the dissolution of the company. And especially the Rhein-Weserbahngesellschaft case, which, in 1844, was driven to dissolution by its frightened shareholders [Steitz, pp. 185 and 196].

The German capitalist founders of the first big railway companies such as Camphausen, the President of the Handelscammer (Chamber of Commerce) of Cologne, and Hansemann (already quoted) were perfectly aware that they could hardly have succeeded in their projects without the help of the State and the administration of big towns such as Cologne and Monster. They proposed, with different modes, an alliance of the private capital with the Junker-state administration. Camphausen, who had led the defunct project of the Rhein-weser company, thought that the private companies could build the tracks but with the help and control (Regalwalt) of the State and that the latter, after a certain time, could take on the administration [Steitz, 1974, pp. 54-55]. Hansemann, the founder of the Cologne-Minden Company, was inclined to think that the private capital could build only the most profitable lines (with the help of State-loans) and leave the burden of the construction of the other lines to the State [Steitz, 1874, p.56].

However different their philosophies were, these captains of industry agreed on the distribution of fixed interest (Zinsen) at a minimum rate of 3, 5% to shareholders not only after the beginning of the operation but also during the period of construction (Bauzinsen). They also admitted the State guarantee in that these interests could be paid independently from the results of the company (in exchange for various modalities which could give the State the possibility of becoming a long term proprietor). These modalities were also sustained by economists, notably List, who published a leading article in favour of the association of the State and the private capital after his come-back from the United States in 1832 [Steitz, 1974, p. 51, quoting Meyer, 1918]. As Steitz showed, the negotiations with the State were very hard, notably concerning financing through public loans.

It is interesting to give an example of their results in the case of the Cologne-Minden Company, one of the biggest projects in the forties. After lengthy bargaining with the State it was agreed in 1843 that the company was to be founded with share capital (Fonds im Aktien Kapital) of 13 000 000 Taler and a participation of the Prussian State amounting to 1/7 of Share capital (it means 1 860 000 Taler). The rest of the share capital had to be found on the free capital market (under the condition of an initial payment of 10%). Independently from their source all shares would receive an annual interest of 4% during the period of construction (Bauzinsen). If there was a need for a supplement of fixed assets this excess would either be financed by additional share capital (with a participation of the state by 1/4) or by loan with the authorization of the board of administration and the ministry of finance.

Beyond financing, the statute of the Cologne-Minden Company also provided for some definition of income: after the opening of the operations the net income (Ertrag) would be calculated by deducting the interests for bonds, the management, administration and reparation (Unterhaltung) costs (Kosten) and a sum for supplying a special Reserve fund (4). This net income would be distributed first as a 3, 5% guaranteed interest for shares and the rest as dividends. If it exceeded 5% of the capital, the surplus would be shared on the basis of 1/3 for the State and 2/3 for private shareholders. Some special provisions were introduced concerning the role of the State. The surplus paid to the State could be used by the latter to pay guaranteed interests (in case of difficulties of the enterprise) or to amortize (at nominal value) 6/7 of the capital subscribed by privates owners (5). Moreover it was mandatory for the State to proceed to this amortization if the return on the share capital was below 3,5% when the guarantee of the State was required : in that case the State could use the interests received on its share of capital and the interests corresponding to the construction.

Beyond this financial data, it is interesting to mention that certain clauses of the statutes relative to the administration of the company provided for some prerogatives of the State [Steitz, 1974, p. 266]. The decisions about tariffs, the nomination of the head of the board of administration, the main technical directors and the chief accountant (Hauptkassierer) required the authorization of the Ministry of finance. The State had the right to nominate a member of the Directors, who was not obligatorily a shareholder but who retained the right to vote. A royal superintendent (Kommissar) took part in the general assembly with a minimum of 1/7 of the voting power (at the start, with a progressive rise of this proportion to 1/4 and even 1/3 after 35 years). These clauses were written in 1843 after the publication of the law of 1838 governing the railway companies but all the ideas expressed in the Cologne-Minden statute and the law of 1838 (see below) had already been expressed as early as 1832 by List and also by Camphausen during the long negotiation that led to the failure of the Rhein-Weser project from 1837 to 1838 [Steitz, 1974, pp. 182-201].

The main lesson to be taken from these texts for our purpose is that there was an interaction of different types of influences at the head of the private railway companies: an influence of capitalist owner-managers submitted to the pressure of small and "hurried" shareholders and an influence of representatives of the State or of regional administrations. This diversity of influence, of course, was a critical point for the development of accounting as it has already been stressed at the heroic time of the first railways by Von Reden, the director of the Berlin-Station railway [1843, p. 300], and also later by Mieles, whose declarations are worthwhile quoting:

"usually, the accounting system of German railway companies has been influenced both by the merchant and the public finance way of thinking. At the beginning of the railway period in Germany merchants and public treasury people gathered together. The Treasury accountant (6) (Kameralist) had to recognize the merchant objectives ... and become used to the essence of merchant vision, the desire of profit. On the contrary. the merchant had to adapt to the representation of the public finance accountants: this explains why a special form of accounting arose" [Mieles, 1932, p. 29].

We are now going to analyse what was, for early Prussian railways, this "special form of accounting" and which rules applied to it.


The first clear and general representation of the initial Prussian accounting system for railways companies was given by a law published in 1838 and a commentary made in 1839 by the Prussian administration. The Law of railways (Eisenbahngesetz) of "November 3, 1838" was promulgated at a time when there was no strict regulation in Prussia concerning the joint stock companies. The main articles concerning accounting were articles 29, 33, 34 and 38 which we will reproduce hereafter.

Article 29 : "The company has to determine its receipts (Bahngeld) in order to cover "the costs (Kosten) of maintaining and managing of the railway"...; take account "of a statutory contribution for collecting a reserve fund (Reserve funds) for extraordinary outlays (Ausgaben) concerning the way and the accessories"; "cover other expenses (Lasten) such as the taxes provided at the Article 38" ...; "benefit from a net surplus (Reinertrag) including both interest and profit (Gewinn) corresponding to an amount not exceeding 10% of the capital invested (Anlagekapital) and no less than 6% of this capital";

Article 33: "If after deduction of all expenditure (Ausgaben), including the annual amount provided for supplying the reserve fund, the net surplus exceeds 10% of the invested capital the administration is entitled to demand a reduction of the transportation prices".

Article 34: "For the sake of the execution of the articles 29-33 the company has to take into account precise accounting (Rechnung) on every part of its undertaking (Unternehmung) and to follow for that purpose, the indications given by the Ministry of Commerce. The results of this accounting are to be transmitted every year to the administration".

Article 38: "The railway company must pay a tax (Abgabe) which is based on its surplus after deduction of all management and maintaining costs as well as the amount of the contribution to the reserve fund".

Some conclusions can be drawn from these articles. The main one is that contrary to the uses and the laws concerning the merchants, there was no formal obligation to make a patrimonial balance sheet that could include the assets and the liabilities. This point has already been stressed by the German literature of the late 19th [Schuler, 1879, p. 65] and the early 20th centuries [Passow, 1919, p. 241]. The law asked the companies to draw up a cash flow account describing the cash receipts (Bahngeld) and the cash payments (Ausgaben). Of course at that time there was a lack of precision about the terminology (sometimes expenditure was replaced by cost) but the text clearly implied a cash flow accounting system. This was also Schuler's [1879, p. 65] and Passow's [1919, p. 237] opinions. However it was not a pure cash flow accounting. Indeed, the law foresaw the possibility (but not the obligation) to deduct a yearly amount from the revenue for "future extraordinary outlays". This amount, in our opinion, was clearly an element of expense and not a call on the net income (7). The whole system seemed to be devoted to regularly distributing the extraordinary outlays over the periods; if used, this device led to a substantial modification of the traditional cash flow accounting system and constituted an important step toward an accrual accounting system.

The other conclusions concern the goal of the system and the concept of profit. It seems that the whole accounting system was devoted to three main tasks: the evaluation of the profitability of the companies (that must not surpass the upper limit of 10% of the invested capital), the calculation of the mass of distributable dividends and the determination of the basis of taxation. According to the law ([section] 29) the profit (Gewinn) was calculated after deduction of the interest (Zins) paid to the shareholders as a normal and automatic remuneration of their capital, independently from any profit. Keyssner [1875, p. 100] has shown that this stipulation was the legalization of a former practice: he quotes examples of statutes (accepted before the publication of the law) containing this conception of profit such as those of the Berlin-Postdamer Eisenbahngesellschaft (1837) and of the Dusseldorf-Elberfeldergesellschaft (1837). As the famous lawyer noted [1875, p. 128] this conception was contradictory to the view of traditional jurists inherited from the Roman tradition notably of Anschutz and Von Volderndorff so as of Puchelt. In our view, it was promoted by managers and economists (Keyssner mentions the influence of the economic science [1875, p. 127]) to reassure shareholders that their share capital was as safe as that of creditors' investments.

In brief, to achieve these objectives, the first Prussian law on railway companies eliminated the traditional balance sheet of the merchants, adopted the model of cash flow accounting as the basis (principle) of determination of profits, but provided a modification of this model to resolve the problem of extraordinary expenditures. These elements are already important to grasp the nature of the initial railway accounting system. However they are not totally clear: what specifically was this cash flow accounting system? Fortunately, the Prussian administration provided the answer to the question soon after the publication of the law.


As emphasized by Mieles, [1932, p. 10] the main points of the explanations furnished by the Prussian Minister of Finance deal with distinctions between different cash out-flows. Before presenting the solution of the Minister it must be said, in accordance with Mieles {1932, p. 48], that, normally speaking, in the frame of a pure (true) cameral (cash flow accounting) system, all the expenditures (with exception of the repayment of share capital (8)) must be treated as diminutions of the profit of the year. But the Ministry, in line with legislation or practices already widely adopted abroad, decided that one must distinguish two kinds of expenditures. Firstly, expenditures that do not influence the annual result (erfolgsunwirksame Ausgaben), such as expenditures for the construction and also those for modernising the tracks (as far as conceded by the government and financed by shares).Secondly, expenditures that influence the result of the year, (erfolgswirksame Ausgaben), such as expenditures for the acquisition of inventories, (Betriebsinventorium), for maintaining the tracks, for transportation and for administration.

The reason for this "anomaly" in the frame of a cash flow based system is obvious: it was <<impossible>> to treat the early and costly expenditures for the construction of the tracks as an element of the yearly result for it would have caused losses and prevented the shareholders from receiving any profit over a long period of time (if the distribution of dividends were based on the accounting figures). Accordingly, the only possible solution to this problem was to agree that expenditure for construction was not an element of result: this was the first but decisive infringement to pure cash flow accounting. This is the reason why Mieles was right to affirm that it was not strict cameral (cash flow) accounting but a <<special form>> of cameral accounting>> [1832, p. 49].

This important concession was able to satisfy the companies. As we are going to see later on, some German accounting laws gave rise to numerous protests. However, this was apparently not the case with the law of 1838: we have not found any trace of protestation against this law in German literature. Even before the promulgation of the law, it seems that the choice of private companies was in favour of a similar type of accounting. Schuler [1879, p. 65] says that in the statutes of the older railway companies, the result was obtained only <<on the basis of the relationship between cash receipts and expenditures>>. Passow [1919, p. 247] quotes the case of the Rhine-Company which, in 1837, had a statute presenting a clause of a reserve fund. Mieles [1932, p. 10] deems that the law of 1838 was a <<recognition>> of practices that had existed earlier on. After the promulgation of the law, from 1838 to 1843, the companies apparently respected the schedule fixed by the comparison of receipts and expenditures.

According to Passow [1919, p. 247] most statutes provided for a reserve fund but there were differences as to the treatment of this fund. The majority of the companies drew funds after distribution of a minimal dividend (9) but some companies did this by registering expenses before profit calculation (10). Although there was formally a big difference between the two kinds of formation of the reserve fund, Passow [1919, p. 249] notes that, as a matter of fact, both systems aimed at providing for renewal of the fixed assets.


With the law of "November 9, 1843" on the Joint Stock Companies (Uber die Actiengesellschaften) the Prussian Government made provision for a specific (11) regulation of the Joint Stock companies, for the first time. Paragraph 24 of this law stated that the board of directors had to keep such accounting books as to give "a view of the patrimonial situation" (Ubersicht der Vermogenslage) and in the first three months of every commercial year had to draw up a balance of the wealth (Vermogen) of the company. Moreover, the paragraph 17 mentioned the principle of the fixity of capital. According to one of the best specialists of commercial law of the 19th century a strict lecture of this law could have rendered impossible for railway companies to produce mere "management balances", which means results based on cash flows, and have required taking account of the values of assets and liabilities [Von Strombeck, 1882, p. 467]. However, fortunately for the state administration and the managers responsible for railways, this law was very imprecise: there was no information concerning the valuation of assets and liabilities and no determination whether the balance sheet would be the basis for the distribution of dividends .This fact is stressed by Schiller [1879, p. 66]. With such a margin of flexibility it was possible for the administration and the managers of railway companies to ignore the law and to go on using the principles stipulated in the law of 1838.

As Passow shows [1919, p. 232] the Prussian administration went on accepting statutes where profits were only based on the comparison of receipts and expenditures: this was notably the case of the statutes of Bergish-Markish (1844) and the Berlin-Hamburger railway Joint Stock companies (12). A little later on, this resistance of the German railway commercial administration was fostered by the decisions of the tax administration. On the 30 May 1853, a tax law on railways (Eisenbahnsteuergesetz) stipulated in its article 2 that "the net profit (Reinertrag) of the railway firms is considered as the distributable amount ... after deduction of administrative, maintenance and management costs, together with the necessary contribution to the reserve fund and the amounts for the planned retribution and repayments of the borrowings ...>>. This definition of profit was totally in line with the kind of cash flow accounting advocated by the Minister of Commerce. As Schuler [1879, p. 66] emphasized, this law also disregarded the patrimonial balance sheet.

After this date the Ministry of Commerce continued its "play" with the commercial law of 1843: in 1856 this Ministry published a list of recommendations to be followed so that the statutes of the railway companies could be admitted [Passov, 1919, p. 239]. This time the administration acknowledged that the net profit (Reingewinn) had to be based on the registration of the movements of the balance sheet and not on the calculation of the difference between the receipts and the expenditures [Passow, 1919, p. 239] (13). But this conclusion remained purely formal. Passow [1919, p. 239] shows, on the basis of some published statutes, that the Ministry "went on to accept statutes in contradiction" with the law of 1843.

The evolution of the situation was however worth noting on one single point: the case of "interests" on shares. Under the pressure of the lawyers it was decided that there could no longer be any interest distributed to the shareholders after the construction of the railway but only dividends. However this practice of interest could be admitted during the period of construction on the condition that the company could determine the period of construction and the rate of interest (article [section] 17 of the law): this concession was obviously obtained for the satisfaction of "hurried shareholders" despite the opposition from strict-minded lawyers. Keyssner [1975, p. 209] notes that this new regulation constrained the railway companies, notably the Cologne-Minden Company, to modify their statutes.


In 1838, as we have seen, the supremacy of the cash flow accounting had been admitted for the calculation of the profit for railway companies. The registration of a yearly expense for anticipating extraordinary expenses was only a possibility opened to the interested companies. This situation changed at the end of the fifties as in 1857 the Ministry of commerce launched an inquiry concerning the question of the "funds" of the railway companies (14). It was apparently intended to clarify the terminology, the structure and the goal of these funds and to discuss the possibility of a move towards a more systematic use, with the directors.

The first result of this enquiry was to distinguish two kinds of funds: the reserve funds (Reservefonds) and renewal funds (Erneuerungs fonds). The role of the "Reservefonds" was said to deal with extraordinary and non customary expenditures such as flooding and accidents. The role of renewal funds was restricted to cope with the problem of expenditures for renewals so as "to permit, as much as possible, the equilibrium (Gleichmassigkeit) in the "loading" (Belastung) of the proprietors of shares at any time" (text quoted by Passow [1919, p. 252], underlined by the author). This was clearly an instrument to get regular dividends. As Passow says [1919, p. 251] these propositions "seem to satisfy the directions of the railway companies". This could explain that only a year after a circular of "January 27, 1958" was issued by the Ministry of Finance, regretting that a renewal fund was not provided for in all statutes and asserting that the reserve funds were not sufficient to take account of the regular wear and tear of the fixed assets. This administration stressed that it was not possible to speak of a distributable profit without an allocation to a renewal fund so as to assure the sustainability (Nachhaltigkeit) of the dividends. Consequently, it logically demanded that the railways directions measured the importance of the yearly allocations for the reserve and the renewal funds in conformity with the views of the inquiry. It also required proving the respect of the disposition of this circular to get the agreement of the Ministry for the determination and the payment of dividends. Unlike the law of 1843, this text had an immediate practical repercussion. According to Passow [1919, p. 252], just after the promulgation of the circular, the new statutes (15) regularly provided for a renewal fund.

To conclude, apparently, in Prussia, at the end of the fifties, the situation for railway companies seemed to be clear: the initial cash flow accounting has been transformed in a kind of accrual accounting devoted to the "regulation" of dividends, which means, according to the Schmalenbach's famous qualification, a kind of "dynamic" accounting [Richard, 1998, p. 576]. But this was without taking account of the "misfits" of the commercial law.


At the beginning of the sixties, lawyers from different states were called up to lay the foundations of the first Commercial Code for the whole of Germany. As a result, the law of "June 24, 1861" (16) forced all merchants (Kaufleute) to follow the rules of the General German Commercial Code. The aim of this Code, in line with the French Commercial Code of 1807, was to protect the interest of creditors by drawing up a balance sheet which enables the comparison of the market value of assets with the bulk of debts, in the hope that the difference between these two amounts could reach a maximum amount, in order to avoid any problem of payment of debt in case of a failure. This type of accounting, which received the name of "static" accounting in continental Europe, [Moxter, 1984; Richard, 2005 b], was mainly expressed in the article 29, 30 and 31 of the Code.

This type of legislation was clearly reinforcing the argumentation of those who, on the basis of the Prussian law of 1843, ascertained that the railway companies had to make a patrimonial balance sheet. However, the defenders of the "special" railway balance sheets could have pleaded the fact that railway companies were not merchant people or companies. But this last hope was also lost with the second step of the commercial legislation: the law of "June 11, 1870". The articles 5 and 208 of this law extended the rules concerning merchants and commercial companies to every kind of joint stock (public) company, including railway companies. As stressed by Schiller [1879, p. 66] the presentation of this law (Motiven) clearly expressed that "the making of purely operating (Ertrags) balances and the distribution of purely annual surpluses (blossen Jahresuberschussen) is inadmissible". Following the article 217 "Only the profit left can be distributed among the shareholders, according to the annual balance sheet (which means the patrimonial balance sheet), after an eventual deduction for creating a reserve fund if it is provided for by the statute".

Thus, at that time, the situation was clear: the German railway companies had the choice of either respecting the law or fighting to change it. They chose the second option because it was, as we are going to see, "impossible" to accept the traditional commercial Fules (17-18)


This battle lasted about ten years from 1873 to 1883 and mobilized practitioners as well as theoreticians along five main stages corresponding to various declarations and articles.

The first attack was launched, not surprisingly so, by the main contesters, the managers of railway companies. In 1873 a special commission was nominated by the Prussian government to study the problems connected with the railway concessions (Spezial Kommission zur Untersuchung des Eisenbahn-Konzessionwesens). Among the participants was Scheele, the president of the Reichseisenbahn, who declared that "a part of the stipulations of the law of 11 June 1870, especially those concerning the balance sheet, the calculation of dividends and the bankruptcy are not suitable for railway companies". He added that the value of assets" should not be obtained on the basis of their separate components, but according to their value in use (Nutzen), it means the profitability (Ertrag) derived from their global entity" and that this was "important for the payment of dividends, the determination of balance sheet and the problems of insolvency". He also stressed, in order to justify these assertions, that, for railway companies, "it can be considered that the assumption of a going concern (vermuthete Fortbestand des Unternehmens) is integrated in the law" and concluded that "the fixed assets ... must be considered as stable items (stabile Posten) without any impact of future reductions of value" (Declarations taken from appendix of the report by the special Commission published in stenographic report of the debate of the House of deputes, first session of the 12th legislature period 1873-74, third volume, pp. 1638 and followings, with some words emphasized by the author). To end with the subject of this special commission, it is worth while noting that to a question concerning the desirability to maintain the existence of interest for shares during the period of construction the consulted expert mandated by the railway companies replied that the consent of interest was "obvious" and that this interest "is part of the fixed assets" [Faucher, 1873, p. 41]. The last part of the answer testified that, for this expert, (as well as the majority of companies) the accumulation in the asset side of interest paid to shareholders during the period of construction was not creating a fictitious asset contrary to the opinion of many lawyers (see below). All these ideas were apparently largely shared by the directors of railway companies (19)

The second attack emanated from the judicial side. Two years after the commission one of the leading commercial lawyers of Germany published a long article and reiterated after Scheele that "the distribution of dividends is not to be connected with patrimonial balances but only with the annual calculation of operating profits (Jahresbetriebsberechnungen)" [Keyssner, 1875, p. 135] . He stressed that anything else is "impossible" especially "the determination of the value of the expensive assets taken one by one independently from each other" [p. 133]. He also added that if a kind of value is to be considered for the balance sheet' "it must be a value derived from the profits (Ertrag) taking the probable duration of the firm" into account [1875, p. 142] and that, as a practical means "the costs form the starting point" [1875, p. 133]. In spite of these basic similarities it seems that Keyssner provided for two new elements in the battle against the old accounting system. First, he emitted the idea that the comparison of assets (at value) with debts and the maintaining of a minimum of capital were not obligatorily the best means to protect the creditors: "the joint stock company could have lost the half of its capital and nevertheless offered an entire security to the creditors, the enterprise is alive if it is capable of getting a revenue" [p. 143]. This was practically a new conception for the time according to which the protection of creditors was obtained so long as the current revenues covered the current expenses. Thanks to that position, it "could be possible to distribute dividends to the shareholders even if the whole of the capital is not covered by assets" [Keyssner, p. 143]. Second, he enlarged the scope of the reforms in proposing this scheme for all joint stock companies (and not only railway companies) "the obligatory patrimonial (the one that calculates the liquidation value for the owner of the business) balance sheet could disappear" and be replaced, for the sake of distribution of dividends, by an another type of balance sheet allowing for "an equal division of profits" [p. 144].

The third and neuralgic element of the new course was an article published in 1878 by another lawyer, J. von Strombeck (from Magdeburg) whose ideas also played a significant role in the course of the battle. Von Strombeck, as well as all the preceding actors, admitted that the problem of distribution of dividends for joint stock and especially railway companies was a crucial one and that it was very important to find some means to cope with the problem of "the necessary weak returns in the first year of operation" and to "avoid any influence of fluctuation of prices on the stable assets" [1878, I, p. 17]. He also asserted, as did Keyssner, that, from the part of creditors, "the agreement of credits should not be based on the importance of the capital in its relationship to the wealth (patrimonium) but on the profitability of the fixed assets" and that the traditional legal position was not a convenient one [1878 I, pp. 3 and 23]. These two first elements allowed him to declare, in line with his predecessors, that the legal ("static") balance sheet based on market values was not convenient for shareholders (for the distribution of dividends) and even for creditors, especially in the case of railway companies [1878 I, p. 3].

The originality of Von Strombeck seems to rely on the fact that he proposed a way of reasoning for a systematic construction of various types of balance sheets. According to him the content and the valuation of the various assets of companies depended on the "aim" (Gegenstand or Zweck) of this company or of this balance sheet (20) [1878 I, p. 4 and 1878 I, p. 94-95]. Thanks to this basic principle he distinguished three fundamental categories of fixed assets for joint stock companies [1878, I, p. 4]. The first class comprises assets devoted to the "use in a permanent propriety" [1878 I, p. 4]. Concerning this kind of assets (companies using this type of assets) the rest of the article shows that there is no question of making valuations based on the market values: the assets should appear as stable assets (stabile Grundvermogen) with a valuation at cost. For most of these kinds of assets their usage creates a depreciation (Entwerthung aus Abnutzung) which must be, as in the case of railroads, compensated by a restoration (Instandhaltung) owing to a deduction out of revenue so that the assets remained stable [1878 I, pp. 5-6]. The second class comprises assets intended to be sold [1878 I, p. 6] and forms the variable fixed assets. These assets, as illustrated by numerous examples throughout the article, are valued at their exit value (Verausserungswerth). The third class is specifically devoted to the assets of insurance companies [1878 I, p. 7]. According to the latter, this kind of company has to treat its assets according to the principles laid for the second class [1878 I, p. 33]. According to these rules, the fixed assets of railway companies and many joint stock companies could be valued at cost, which was satisfactory to avoid price fluctuation and their incidence on the distribution of dividends [1878 II, p. 76].Von Strombeck, differing from other specialists, was aware that this type of balance sheet was contradictory to the law and proposed to change it not only for railway companies but also for all joint stock companies [1878 II, p. 106] He was convinced that these questions and especially the question of the basis for distribution of dividends were of public interest [1878 II, p. 84] at least for railway companies.

The fourth attack against the static law was launched in 1879 (21) by Hermann Scheffler, a railway director of the Braunschweig Company. Scheffler was very conscious that the whole affair on the discussion of various balance sheets was fundamentally a social conflict opposing the "creditors" who want what he called an "objective value" (objektiver Werth"), which means market value, and the "proprietors" (in our view the shareholders for railway company) who want cost value [1879, p. 34]. He recognized that there was a competition of many possible principles of accounting [1879, p. 20]. He also thought that the construction of a balance sheet depended on the aim the assets are detained for but he added that this aim was connected to an analysis of the purposes of the various stakeholders. According to him the value of an asset that only a proprietor is interested in, (such as a machinery) is the subjective value for this proprietor, which practically speaking, means the cost [1879, p. 23]. On the contrary, for objects to be sold, which is of interest to other people than proprietors, the value is the "objective value", which basically means the exit (market) value [1879, p. 24] (22).

Interestingly, Schemer was a strict defender of the theory of cost value for "objective" elements: he made it clear that "no circumstantial event, no variation of price, no variation of profitability and other external time related conditions can change the cost value of assets for use: only the loss due to use must be taken into account and notably with the formation of systematic annual depreciation [1879, pp. 26-27]. Even material inventories such as rail inventories are not to be impaired [1879, p. 40]. More surprisingly, at least for the traditional lawyers but also even for the railway managers of the time, Scheffler was persuaded that every intangible long term investment must be treated as a fixed asset to be depreciated, even foundation costs and education costs [1879, p. 39]: he was a defender of what has been called afterwards, at the time of Schmalenbach, the pure dynamic school!

All these ideas were connected to the problem of profit regulation; Schemer notably said that the cameral (cash) accounting is "not rational because it can cause a considerable fluctuation of profit" [1879, p. 14]. If he did not explicitly mention the case of the static patrimonial accounting it is obvious that all his work was intended to abolish this type of accounting. It is worthwhile noting that, according to Schemer, the demolition of this type of accounting was not necessarily connected to the replacement of the law: he thought that the articles 29 and 31 of the 1870 law were sufficiently vague about the concept of value (Werth) so as to admit the cost as a basis of accounting foundation for joint stock companies [1879, p. 20]. In this case a simple evolution of the case law would have been sufficient.

The last part of the story once again concerns yon Strombeck whose second article devoted to the question of the making of balance sheet for joint stock companies in 1882. Von Strombeck, like Scheffler, recognized that the problem with the static balances was not one of practical valuation difficulty: it is always possible if one has decided to apply this theory to find market values, even if necessary, to liquidate value (Abbruchwerth) [1882, p. 491]. No, the problem was a conflict of interests between shareholders and creditors implying two kinds of ways to determine a profit [1882, pp. 460, 494 and 495]. Von Strombeck was aware that abandoning the patrimonial balance sheet and its objective value could be dangerous because the new theory of creditor protection by the sole observation of the operating cash flows may, in case of crisis, have as consequence, the disappearance of the companies [1882, pp. 494-495] (23). But a special balance sheet was "required" for dividends [1882, p. 461]. This "dira necessita" (strong necessity) "must lead to the system of stable accounts" [1882, p. 495]. Differing from Scheffler, he maintained that the 1870 law was clearly in favour of market values and not liable to an interpretation in favour of cost, he underlined that there was no other way to change the law: it was even "a matter of public interest" [1882, p. 483)].


This victory was obtained in two steps, the second one being the definitive one. The first break against the 1870's legislation was obtained in 1879 with a case from the ROHG (High Imperial Tribunal) handling the valuation of fixed assets of railway companies. It was declared, in line with the Scheffer's thesis, that the valuation at acquisition cost was not strictly contradictory to the law (ROHG, 1879, Bd 25, p. 307). Even if important, this decision was restricted to the case of railway companies and subjected to criticism according to some leading lawyers who deemed it was a denial of the spirit of the law. Obviously this case was not sufficient to solve the problem. The definitive solution to the problem was given by a change of the law. A new law, the 1884 law (Aktienrechtsnovelle vom "July 18, 1884", RGBI, p. 123), was specifically dedicated to joint stock companies, and added new articles to the corpus for joint stock companies, notably the articles 185 a and 185 b which are very important for the question treated and which deserve to be quoted fully.

The article 185a requires that for the construction of the balance sheet, the four following rules (referring to article 31) must be applied:

1. Shares, obligations and merchandises which have a stock market or market price may be valued up to this price.., but if this price is above the acquisition or the production cost this cost is the maximum limit not to be exceeded.

2. The other assets (elements) composing the wealth ("andere Vermogens Gegenstande") are to be valued to the limit of the acquisition or production cost.

3. Fixed assets and other items which are not devoted to reselling but to durable use.., may be valued, with no consideration to an inferior value (geringeren Weft), at the acquisition or production cost, under the condition that a systematic deduction for their use (Abnutzung) or a corresponding allocation to a renewal fund (Erneuerungs fonds) will be made.

4. The cost of organisation and administration may not be registered as assets and must appear for their full amount as expenditure (Ausgabe) in the calculation of the annual profit.

According to the official justification of the law itself [Motiven zu Novelle 1884] this new legislation was composed of two very distinct elements. The first element was the recognition of the principle of prudence: from 1884 onwards, for joint stock companies, it was no longer possible to recognize non-realised profits. This was in line with the evolution of patrimonial (static) accounting in continental Europe and justified, as was the case in France about twenty years ago, by scandals related to the distribution of dividends on the basis of potential profits. If the new law had been limited to the recognition of this principle, it could not be said that the shareholders had succeeded in introducing a new philosophy of accounting in their favour. This can be explained by the obligation to take account of potential losses on behalf of diminution of values which would have remained and caused problems.

The very original element of this law was represented by the [section] 3 of article 185 a that gave the possibility to joint stock companies to avoid the impairment of fixed assets (at their lower market values) and to use a cost valuation assorted with a systematic depreciation. The explanations ("Motiven") of the law are very clear that this new device for fixed assets was dictated by a question of dividends: "if the company had been obliged to take account of market values even for this kind of assets, whose selling price are subject to considerable fluctuation of prices due to the relationship of supply and demand, without their value in use (Nutzungswert) could be changed, it would have resulted a full untrue distribution of profits" [Motiven, p. 301]. The "Motiven" were also very clear that this part of the legislation was an exception to the general "static" rules which remained in place: "the project of law, in relationship with the paragraph 31 of the Commercial Code, takes as a basic principle, that all patrimonial assets are to be valued at their value (it means market value) but no higher than their acquisition or production cost" [Motiven, p. 303]. But this exception was the only exception: the generalisation of a system of distribution of costs as proposed by Sheffler for intangible long term expenses was not accepted as it was notably clearly expressed for organisation and administration costs (see supra article 185a-4).


In our opinion the events described above clearly show that the "time of railways" was the beginning of the death for cash flows ("cameral") and patrimonial (static) accounting styles, at least in Germany. We have seen that under the influence of public accountants, at the very beginning of this period, the thirties, a kind of cameral accounting had generally been applied to railway companies. It is important to stress that this cameral accounting was not a pure one for it was decided to treat the initial expenditures (for constructions and purchase of rolling stock) not as elements of results (as should normally have been the case) but as an investment: it was, to use Mieles's expression, a "modified" cameral accounting. This already mongrel accounting was again changed in the fifties with the more and more massive introduction of a kind of depreciation accounting instead of the registration of expenditures at the time of renewals. Towards the end of the period studied it can be said that, as far as private (24) railway companies are considered, the cameral accounting was over or very nearly so: this was the first victim of the railway accounting battle.

In the seventies, railway directors and some lawyers connected to them, led another successful fight against the application of static (market oriented) accounting, which was at the time, the dominant kind of accounting. In 1884, as a result of this last fight, static accounting was no longer obligatorily applied for fixed tangible assets for all joint stock companies. It was also the beginning of a (long) agony for static accounting and the first clear introduction of very important elements of historical cost accounting. Concerning this last point (the breakthrough of a kind of dynamic accounting in 1884) there is not much debate among historians. For example, Walb [1933, p.5] deems that there is a kind of return to the solutions of the ALR, after 90 years. These solutions were largely marked by a refusal of market value [Richard, 2005c], and Barth [1953, p. 117] and constitute a "decisive breach" (entscheidende Bresche) in the common market value (gemeinenWert) for balance sheet valuation. However, Schneider, [1995, p.151], while commenting on the 1884's law, is more struck by the appearance of the principle of prudence (lower of cost or market rule) than the development of any kind of dynamic accounting.


There is considerable debate concerning the reason for change, in comparison to the points previously developed. First we are going to highlight what appears to be the opinion of German historians before giving our own interpretation.

Barth insists upon a technical point of view: the patrimonial (static) theory would have failed and needed to be replaced because in "many cases, especially for fixed assets it is almost impossible to find a reliable market value" [1950, p. 53 and also similarly 1953, pp. 116 and 147]. He also adds a second argument: even if these technical difficulties could be solved, it would result in << a totally arbitrary income which has nothing to do with the real profits (Ertrage) of the enterprise" [1953, p. 116] because rising prices could eventually trigger the distribution of unrealised profits [1950, p. 52]. It seems to us that this second motive is not important for our case for the static lawyers, beginning with first the French and (25) then the German lawyers, had been able to respond to this type of criticism (thanks to the lower of cost of market rule) with no change to their basic philosophy of accounting style for the protection of creditors. So, to conclude, the technical problem remains Barth's main argument.

The Schneider's thesis is another one which means competence problem. Schneider [1995, pp. 132-133] stresses that throughout the twentieth century "the discussion of financial accounting was dominated by lawyers" who were unaware of merchant book keeping and that, as an exception, was unfamiliar with double book keeping which led a commercial lawyer (meaning Keyssner who led this fight against static accounting) to calculate distributable profit separately from the balance sheet".

In our opinion all these arguments cannot explain the real reasons of the change. As far as the technical argument is concerned, it is interesting to note that von Strombeck himself, a strong partisan of the "system of stable accounts", however, acknowledged that "the reason for its adoption was not so much the difficulty to find a true valuation of fixed assets as rather the possibility to use, in particular for the distribution of dividends, a mass of results only depending on the utilities produced by stable wealth (patrimonium)" [1882, p. 464]. He added that "in the case of a patrimonial balance sheet, the biggest difficulty and the uncertainty to find an objective value must not deter from proceeding with a valuation and that, in case of doubt.., at worst, one can use the liquidation value" [1882, p. 491].

As for the argument of competence, one can wonder why lawyers such as Keyssner and Strombeck could inevitably discover the virtue of merchants' bookkeeping while their colleagues, authors of the 1870's legislation, were unable to take this step. Our explanation is that, beyond a question of competence, there was a question of social environment: these men "discovered stable accounts" (to use the von Strombeck's expression) because they were the spokespeople for railway managers and shareholders and expressed their needs.

But what were these needs? What was the reason for this "impossibility" to use the patrimonial type of accounting as evoked by Keyssner [1875, p. 133]? What was this "dura necessita" mentioned by von Strombeck [1882, p. 482] forcing to adopt the system of stable accounts? Our answer is that "stable accounts" (a marvellously eloquent expression) were necessary to give stable dividends to shareholders, a sine qua condition to collect funds and to develop railway companies and big joint stock companies. The importance of the stable dividends question is not only acknowledged by German historians of railway economics. At that time this question also constitutes the very framework of reasoning for all the defenders of dynamic accounting versus static accounting. Whether it is the case of Keyssner [1875, p. 144], of von Strombeck [1878 II, p.76] or of Scheffler [1879, p. 14] their common fear was price fluctuation and its influence on dividend distribution. Even the documents explaining the motives for the 1884 law, have, as we have seen, evoked the problem of dividend stability. Our conclusion is that the birth of a specific type of accounting for railway companies and the promulgation of a specific law for joint stock companies was due to the need for greater dividend stability. This could not have been reached with the previous types of accounting.

This stability was not only required for the sake of one particular shareholder. It was also required for distributing investment products equally among the different shareholders who had been participating in this investment all through the period. To summarize, the birth of historical cost dynamic accounting in German legislation was a product of shareholders craving for stable and equally distributed dividends over time.


The previous developments have shown that during the period 1870-1884 all the main actors of the struggle against the patrimonial accounting defended a kind of historical cost (dynamic) accounting. One interesting question is to know if they have succeeded in the creation of a (new).theory of accounting. This question had already been raised by German authors notably by Walb, Barth and Schneider who disagree over this. We are relating their position before expressing our own opinion.

As early as 1983, Walb, in his history of the balance sheet dogma, deems that Schemer "has made an important step in matter of accounting theory" [1933, p. 11]. He thinks that Scheffler had "conscious dynamic objectives" [1933, p. 15] and had finally "opened the road for the whole of the future evolution" [1933, p. 17]. Also Mieles [1932, p. 13] insists upon the influence of Scheffler on the thoughts of the great theorist, Simon. On the contrary, according to Barth, it was only after the publication of the 1884 law on joint stock companies that the theory of balance sheet tried to find a justification for the use of cost valuation in matter of balance sheet dressing" [1953 I, p. 117]. Barth thinks that the movement of ideas towards the historical cost accounting system before 1884 was not conscious, only inspired by practical point of views [1953 I, pp. 156-157].

If we concentrate our study on Scheffler, who benefited from the whole intellectual contribution of Keyssner and von Strombeck, we may observe that, in order to justify his position in favour of an historical cost accounting, Scheffler uses the concept of goal (Zweck) to distinguish different types of assets (assets for permanent use, assets for sale). He also deducts a type of valuation from this classification (valuation at cost for assets for use, valuation at market price for assets for sale) and infers from the two previous points an adequate treatment for the main types of assets. Is there any big difference, for these main elements with the ideas expressed after the First World War by theoreticians of the dynamic balance sheet such as Rieger and Schmalenbach? Not in our opinion. It would seem that Scheffler was an even more consequent theoretician than Schmalenbach in so much as he deducted the treatment as assets of intangibles expenditures such as organisational costs from his theory. As a matter of fact Scheffler, as well as yon Strombeck, were, contrary to Barth's view, perfectly aware of the fact that they lived a battle of ideas about conflicting modes of calculation of profits (see notably von Strombeck [1882, p. 460]). They were even conscious that they defended the interests of shareholders against those of creditors. Their articles not only suggest a list of practical wishes: they also constructed along a hypothetical-deductive reasoning, and offered the framework of a social theory for historical cost accounting.

For the first time in Germany, if not in the world, the framework of a social theory for historical cost accounting was clearly expressed.


A classical, if not dominating thesis, is that railroad accounting has played a major role in the development of accounting concepts, especially concerning depreciation, and more generally in the development of modern accounting theory. The traditional references are those of Holmes [1975] and Boockholdt [1977]. But a German author had expressed the same thesis as early as 1933: "the theory of balance sheet was driven to more clarity by the enterprises with large fixed assets especially railways. This evolution made of the profit and loss statement the main statement" [Walb, 1933, p. 7 and 17]. As Walb's assertions were never translated into English, his views were condemned to oblivion. According to Holmes [1975, p. 18] "depreciation was a knotty problem for these early railroad accountants. They argued over it... but in the end it was from the very ashes of their disagreements that a modern concept of depreciation arose, Phoenix like, fifty years later". Boockholdt while sustaining the same idea [1977, p. 14] enlarged it: "many of the basic concepts of accounting theory such as disclosure, matching measurement of cash flow, had origins in railroad accounting" [1977, p. 9]. However this thesis has been contested by Lemarchand after his study of the historical development of railroad accounting in France. According to Lemarchand, in a general way, if it is likely that, in matter of management, the railway companies have had an influence on the working of enterprises belonging to other sectors; it does not seem so obvious that their accounting behaviour could truly have had an influence likewise. [Lemarchand, 1993, p. 525].

If we take the example of systematic depreciation (with distribution of cost over the period of use of the fixed assets) it could hardly be maintained that this concept has been created by railway accountants both in France and in Germany. In France Lemarchand has shown that, as far as practice is concerned, some examples of such a systematic depreciation can already be found in the 18rh century (especially in the second part) : depreciation of horses at the "Forge d'Oberbruck et Manufacture de fer blanc de Wegsheid" in 1739 [Lemarchand, 1993, p. 97], depreciation of furniture (by 5%) by the "Company Rey and Magneval" in 1751 [Lemarchand, 1993, p. 69], depreciation of tools, buildings and horses by the "Manufacture de toiles peintes de Rey" between 1763 and 1792 [Lemarchand 1993, pp. 73, 74,98], depreciation of tools by 5%) by the "Manufacture de quincaillerie de la Charite sur Loire" in 1767 [Lemarchand 1993, p. 227], depreciation of machinery (by 4%) by the "Manufacture du Logelbach" in 1775 [Lemarchand, 1993, p. 227], depreciation of furniture and tools (by 1/24%) by the "Manufacture royale de velours de coton de Sens" in 1778 [Lemarchand, 1993, p. 1].

The original German feature in this respect can be found as early as 1794: it is also possible to find a legislation (Allgemeine Preussische Landrecht--ALR--second part [section] 545) in Prussia concerning the calculation of profit of commercial companies with a clause enouncing that (in case of no special stipulation by statute) the corporate fixed assets are to be systematically depreciated [Barth 1953; Lion 1928; Schneider 1987; p. 443; Schneider 1995, p. 129] (26). Of course this kind of (optimally) dynamic oriented legislation was soon rebutted by the static ideas of the Napoleonic Code of Commerce [Richard 2005 b and c], which was translated into German in 1808 by Daniels [Bosselmann, 1939, annexe 4]. The French code was notably applied in the Rhine provinces even after the collapse of Napoleon (27) [Steitz, 1974, p. 26] and inspired the endeavours of a commercial codification of States such as Wurttemberg in the thirties [Barth, 1953, p. 67]. This may explain why, in Prussia, the law on joint stock companies published in 1843 no longer mentioned the possibility of a systematic depreciation of fixed assets and presumably diverted to a static viewpoint. Nevertheless it seems almost unbelievable that, at the beginning of the 19th century, the Prussian merchant and lawyer elite was unaware of the ALR and of its mention of a dynamic style of depreciation. Furthermore, as Schneider demonstrates [1987, p. 451], it was "not usual to see systematic depreciation based on percentage of fixed assets before the second part of the 18tb century". A number of books can also be found (rarely during the 18th century but more frequently at the beginning of the 19th century) that describe the principle of such a depreciation, the first author being Magelsen [1772, p.76]. The conclusion is that railway accountants and managers have, in no way, contributed to the creation of the concept of dynamic depreciation. But, on the contrary, they have played a very big role in the dissemination, the theoretical justification and the legalization of this concept. They contributed to the dissemination because the majority of railway companies, that represented the biggest companies at that time, applied this type of depreciation at the beginning of the sixties. They play an important role for the theoretical justification thanks to the publications of railway managers or lawyers closely related to them. They succeeded in legalizing through the articles of the 1884 law as a result of the pressure of railway lobbyists. To summarize, there has been dynamic depreciation and more largely dynamic theory, a dominant approach of accounting.


In their article about the demand and supply of accounting theories Watts and Zimmermann [1979] outline their hypothesis of a market for excuses according to which, in a regulated economy, they "expect to observe changes in accounting theory when a new law is passed which impinges on accounting practice" so that "accounting theory has changed after the introduction of government regulation" [1979, p. 289 emphasis added]. It is clear that they base their reasoning on the case of US railroad legislation : it is their hypothesis that regulation of profits (primarily of the railroads) "created a demand for theories rationalizing depreciation as an expense" and that "without regulation there was no necessity for depreciation to be a charge systematically deducted each year in determining net income. However, because rate regulation was justified in terms of restricting the economic profits of monopolists (or eliminating ruinous competition) regulation created a demand for justifications arguing for depreciation to be treated as an annual charge to profits" [1979, p. 293]. They concluded that accounting theories are generally "normative" because "they are used as excuses for political action (i.e. the political process creates a demand for theories which prescribe rather than describe the world)." [1979, p. 273].

In the case of the German legislation for railway companies we do not find any evidence of a market for excuses hypothesis .In contrast to Watts and Zimmermann's hypothesis it seems that the change in accounting theory appeared before rather than after the law which this theory intended to defend and that this theory was describing an already existing practice. The sequence of the German case is the following: at the beginning Prussian railway companies produced a special type of balance sheet and had a concept of profit oriented to their needs. This practice had been largely incorporated within the law of 1838, the fundamental law concerning rail companies. This was improved through various administrative regulations from 1838 to 1862, aiming notably at a systematic form of depreciation. Throughout this period, to the best of our knowledge, there has been no article or book presenting a theory in defence of this legislation or control. The reason for this absence of theory seems obvious: the legislation was basically in line with the practices or the desired practices of the managers and shareholders of railway companies. Thus there was no reason to justify anything.

The scene completely changed in 1862 and 1870 when a new law developed by lawyers working for the interests of creditors (rather than shareholders) obliged the rail companies to produce balance-sheets in total contradiction with their vital interests. As a reaction against these laws and in order to get a new law more favourable to their interests, the railways managers and a few astute lawyers sharing the interests of shareholders against creditors wrote a significant list of articles in the seventies which, in our view, should be considered as founding a new theory of what we call "dynamic accounting" or "historical cost accounting". This theoretical weapon in favour of a new law succeeded in 1884 with a law which offered all joint stock companies (and not only railway companies) the possibility of using the dynamic theory for tangible fixed assets for the first time in Germany.

As a conclusion, the German case shows that the theory came before the introduction of a new law and was used to prepare it. Furthermore, this theory largely describes a practice in line with shareholders' interests and was frankly advocating the basic interests of these shareholders. There was no attempt to disguise the needs of short term and regular dividends for hurry and worry shareholders under the umbrella of "excuses". Based on this case, our hypothesis is that accounting theories may be considered as a weapon to demolish existing practices or regulations rather than an excuse or justification for existing legislation or practice.


Agency theory, as represented by the fundamental article by Jensen and Meckling on the theory of the firm [1976], expresses three main ideas. Firstly, in the firm, the basic conflict opposes on the one hand the managers and on the other hand the "outside" equity owners and the creditors. The possibility of a conflict between the outside equity owners and the creditors is only marginally indicated in two backside notes [1976, pp. 337 and 339]. In fact the opposite applies, bondholders and outside equity owners are treated together as potential victims of the managers (1976, p. 338). Secondly, the basic conflict can be solved by the signature of contracts concerning the monitoring activities, the bonding activities and the emission of shares: these contracts can be fair because creditors and outside shareholders have the possibility of knowing the manoeuvres of managers in advance. Even the suppression of unlimited liability is accepted by the creditors by means of a fair contract [1975, p. 331]. Thirdly, as implied by these two former points, accounting can be considered as an information device solicited in the course of the issuance of fair contracts between managers and outside claimants.

The history of the Prussian railway accounting illustrates that these ideas do not correspond to reality (28). The main conflict in Germany opposed the creditors on the one hand and the outside shareholders and the managers on the other hand. One could speak of a "theory" of alliance between managers and shareholders and not of a "theory" of agency. The losers of the battle, the creditors, were not in a position to sign any compensatory contract. They had to accept the (partial) disappearance of static accounting because they were weak and they did not have the power to resist the alliance of shareholders and managers.

Accounting, in the course of this battle, was not considered as a source of information on managers' actions but as a means of improving their situation as well as the shareholders' situation in the matter of distribution of dividends. The new dynamic theory was not devoted to calculating the performance but to regulating the distributable profit. In short, the issue was not a question of "fair" contracts or "fair" information bur of the exercise of harsh power for the sake of the development of a new kind of capitalism.


On the basis of the French experience, it has been suggested that after the beginning of the industrial revolution (at the end of 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries) the capitalist models of regulated financial accounting went through three main stages of development : static, dynamic and actuarial ones [Richard, 2005 b and c]. The history of accounting of private rail companies in Germany shows that in this country the rail companies played a major role in the spread of historical cost accounting principles. In addition, these companies and big other joint stock ones, largely contributed to the birth of the "dynamic" second stage, at least in continental Europe. If the representatives of these rail companies had not invented new concepts of accounting, in particular concerning depreciation, they did, as early as 1875-1879; elaborate a new theory of accounting (the dynamic theory). This new theory had a profound impact, at least on German theorists such as Simon, Rieger and Schmalenbach of the late 19th century and the first part of the 20th century. It was needed to justify the publication of a new law favourable to the interests of impatient shareholders rather than those of creditors and to defeat the ideology of public finance and patrimonial (static) theories. As this theory appeared before (rather than after) the law which promulgated the new approach and was clearly advocating the defence of the private interest of shareholders (not those of the public in the strict sense), it would seem possible to assert that the Watts and Zimmermann's basic hypothesis of the "theory of market excuses" does not fit with these historical developments.

According to these developments, the main reasons for developing the new accounting theory were connected with problems of dividends. Firstly it was imposed by the necessity to find accounting procedures which would allow the distribution of dividends from the very beginning of the investment cycle even in the absence of revenue. Secondly it was fostered by the desire to find an accounting model which would enable the distribution of profits generated by an investment evenly throughout the investment cycle and amongst the different shareholders taking part in the financing of this investment.

Hence, the second stage of development of capitalist accounting may have been caused by the question of distribution of profits and dividends and not of information. However, as this attempt took place within the framework of the principle of prudence, it was impossible, at that stage of accounting capitalism, to achieve a perfect device for the regulation (smoothing) and the rise of the rate of accounting profit: the beginning of the solution was only to be found at the end of the 20tb century with the third actuarial stage and the "discovery" of fair value accounting [Richard, 2004, 2005 b and 2005d].


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Jacques Richard


(1) Among the very first ones are lines joining different mines such as the Hardsteiner Review Eberfeld line opened in 1829, and the Deilbach Teilstrecke opened in 1831 [Steitz 1974, pp. 105-109] all founded by an association of private undertakers.

(2) If they succeeded in doing that, it could be the occasion for some founders to get very. high profits, along with the leverage effect [Eichholtz, 1962, pp. 154].

(3) It was usual during the thirties and the forties to pay only 10% of the shares.

(4) This deduction could not surpass the level of 3% of share capital without the permission of the State.

(5) According to the calculation made by Hansemann, these reimbursements could take 57 years before the State could be the sole owner of the company [Steitz 1974, p. 266].

(6) Steitz interestingly notes that in the thirties, on the level of the Prussian administration, high officers such as Nagler (director of the Post Office) and Rother (who led the negociation with capitalists such as Camphausen) only knew the public finance (Karneral) accounting [1874, p. 79].

(7) Passow [1919, pp. 247-248] underlines that the expression "Reserve fund" is an ambiguous if not unfortunate one. Generally, in matter of traditional commercial accounting (at the time of Passow), a reserve is an accumulation of profits; but Passow acknowledges that, as a matter of fact, the Reserve fund may be understood as a renewal fund (Erneuerungsfonds) created by deduction of expenses from revenue [1919, p. 249].

(8) As noted by Mieles [1932, p. 48] in cameral accounting cash inflows corresponding to the payment by shareholders of the capital can obviously not be considered as a receipt for the sake of determination of the yearly result; similarly, repayment of share capital is not an element of expenditure.

(9) It is for example the case of the Bonn-K61ner Eisengesellschaft in 1841 [Passow, 1919, p. 247).

(10) Passow [1919, p. 248-249] and Mieles [1932, p. 10] quote the case of the Berlin-Stettiner Gesellschaft (1840); there is also the case of the Koln Minden company in 1848 for a part of its fixed assets [Mieles 1932, p. 10].

(11) The ALR law was not a specific law on joint stock companies [Laux, 1998, p. 41].

(12) In the same vein, Mieles [1932, p. 34] who confirms that the law of 1843 has not been applied by the Koln Minden and the Nieder Markisch companies.

(13) This acknowledgment is confirmed by a circular instruction of March 29, 1859 [Von Strombeck, 1882, p. 481].

(14) These developments are mainly based on Passow [1919, pp. 249-253]. For

the same view and the same conclusions see also Mieles [1932, p. 11].

(15) Even some "old railway companies" such as the Rhein Eisenbahngesellschaft in 1858, the Bergish in 1859 and the Turingische Eisenbahngesellschaft in 1862 decided to build a renewal fund [Mieles, 1932, p. 12].

(16) This law was applied in 1862 in Prussia [Mieles, 1932, p. 12].

(17) According to Mieles [1932, pp. 31-32] the study of the practice during the period 1861-1884 shows that there is an appearance of the commercial balance sheets (under the name of "general balance sheets") in Prussia : this is notably the case of the Rheinishe EBG(in 1862), the Berlin-Potsdam Magdeburg EBG, the Berlin-Anhalten EBG, and later the Bergisch-Markish EBG. However, it seems that the railway companies did not totally respect the "play" of the new laws and tried to introduce some "fictitious items" within the new balance-sheets that had nothing to do with the legal balance-sheet. According to Mieles this rise of the problems with commercial balance sheets is the reason which caused Scheffler to intervene (see below).

(18) It should be noted however that the 1862 law, while reiterating the prohibition of interests on shares, went on authorizing the payment of these interests during the period of construction: on this point the lawyers had taken account of the interests of railway companies.

(19) See also the declarations of Schiller, Director of the "Deutsche Eisenbahnbaugesellschaft", according to whom the appliance of regulations valid for merchants could be "stupid for enterprises whose object is not handling" [Schiller, 1878, p. 66]. Schuler agreed that the valuation of tangible assets and financial participations should basically based on value in use (<< Macht zu Nutzen >>) but, insofar as these values are very difficult to obtain, it is better to content with acquisition costs [p. 67]. In any case the recourse to market value could be "a calamity" [p. 67].

(20) On the beginning of the article (p. 4) the Von Strombeck's classification deals with different types of companies; but on pages 2 and 29 he specifies that inside a same company various types of assets are to be found which can be classified along his principles.

(21) According to Mieles [1932, p. 13] Scheffler had presented his thesis as soon as 1875.

(22) Schemer (p.24) however distinguishes two kinds of objective value: the first one for long term resale (based on actuarial calculation) and the second one for short term resale (based on market value).

(23) In a very modern way he "answered" to this anxiety by asserting that creditors must make a personal valuation of the risks they take before lending to a business [1879, p. 35]. Schemer presumably influenced Von Strombeck.

(24) This assertion is untrue for state-owned railway companies up to 1927.

(25) According to Dupin notably as quoted by Barth himself [1950, p. 52]

(26) See also Richard [2005 c] for a comparison of German and French situations in the context of evolution of the fair value concept.

(27) The result of this situation was that until 1861 Prussia had two law territories: the West part under French law commercial legislation and the East part under ALR, which was not a specific commercial legislation [Steitz 1974, p. 26].

(28) For another example of this disconnection between agency theory and the historical reality see Ding and alii [2008].
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Date:Jun 1, 2012
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