The conservatism principle is the general concept of recognizing expenses and liabilities as soon as possible when there is uncertainty about the outcome, but to only recognize revenues and assets when they are assured of being received. Thus, when given a choice between several outcomes where the probabilities of occurrence are equally likely, you should recognize that transaction resulting in the lower amount of profit, or at least the deferral of a profit. Similarly, if a choice of outcomes with similar probabilities of occurrence will impact the value of an asset, recognize the transaction resulting in a lower recorded asset valuation.
Under the conservatism principle, if there is uncertainty about incurring a loss, you should tend toward recording the loss. Conversely, if there is uncertainty about recording a gain, you should not record the gain.
The conservatism principle can also be applied to recognizing estimates. For example, if the collections staff believes that a cluster of receivables will have a 2% bad debt percentage because of historical trend lines, but the sales staff is leaning towards a higher 5% figure because of a sudden drop in industry sales, use the 5% figure when creating an allowance for doubtful accounts, unless there is strong evidence to the contrary.
The conservatism principle is the foundation for the lower of cost or market rule, which states that you should record inventory at the lower of either its acquisition cost or its current market value.
The principle runs counter to the needs of taxing authorities, since the amount of taxable income reported tends to be lower when this concept is actively employed; the result is less reported taxable income, and therefore lower tax receipts.
The conservatism principle is only a guideline. As an accountant, use your best judgment to evaluate a situation and to record a transaction in relation to the information you have at that time. Do not use the principle to consistently record the lowest possible earnings for a company.
The conservatism principle is also known as the conservatism concept or the prudence concept.