Friday, March 27, 2009

G--20 to Mess with Accounting Standards?

On April 1, the richest 20 nations in the world--the G20 nations will meet in London to deliberate on the current state of world financial affairs in an attempt to find solutions to the global financial crisis. Given the political attention to mark to market rules in the U.S. and the EU, can political demands to relax the fair value accounting rules to allow banks more lending leeway be far off?

Over the past few months, accounting for financial instruments has been controversial with opposing views circulating. Bankers and their lobbyists continue to push lawmakers to force accounting standard setters to relax the rules as to whether financial instruments in inactive or distressed markets should be recorded on balance sheets at fair value. Current rules force mark-to-market accounting in illiquid/distressed markets, even for securities that are being held to maturity. The rules also provide guidance on how to use inputs other than trading prices — including internal models in situations where no other information is available.

Bankers hate fair value and are receiving more support from U.S. and international lawmakers, who say financial instruments that are held to maturity should be allowed to be valued without reference to current market prices.

The U.S. Congress last week pressured the FASB to fast track a proposal that would provide added guidance on fair value requirements to generally give the banks what they want. The comment period for the IASB/FASB proposal ends on April 1, after being out for an unusually short 15-day period. The comment period on the IASB's proposal is 30 days.

In addition to the fair value rules, banks also want action on reserve rules. Banks are limited in what they can lend based on their asset and equity positions. Lawmakers may want to change these rules to loosen up lending practices. Banks and lawmakers blame the current credit crisis on mark to market and bank reserve rules. International rules on the current regulatory capital ratios for banks were set up in the Basel II agreement.

Different ideas exist on this:
  • IASB chairman David Tweedie has suggested using the insurance company model of catastrophic reserves, i.e. banks would establish a non-distributable reserve on the balance sheet, i.e. not on the income statement. The balance sheet asset would be clearly marked as being non-distributable so investors understood its purpose. If catastrophe hit — such as a credit crisis — the company would be allowed to tap the reserve to keep the event from decimating company earnings.
  • Other experts have suggested using what is known as dynamic provisioning, a reserve technique used by banks in Spain. In this case, reserves are increased during good times so they can be drawn down when losses pile up. Dynamic provisioning, also referred to as the "cookie jar" method, smoothes earnings when cash is released from the reserve and fed through the profit and loss statement. However, some companies have used earnings smoothing to manage and inflate earnings, as the release of reserves can be masked on financial statements.
  • A third method, involving two net income lines, has also been discussed. The concept here is to create a second line representing regulatory net income to show a company's profit minus its capital reserve. Along with separating the cash reserve from the earnings calculation, a company could use this line to calculate performance-based executive compensation. In that way, executives would not be getting rich off of inflated profit numbers.
With information from Maria Leone at

No comments: