Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Investors vs. Bankers--Who will Win?

Recently the IASB and the FASB issued for comment changes to accounting rules that would allow looser mark to market accounting. This has sparked opposition to the changes from consumer and investor groups that who are advancing their previously expressed arguments that the rules give management (banks?) too too much freedom in valuing assets in distressed or illiquid markets.

Opposition comes from such places as the Consumer Federation of America, the CFA Institute and the FASB's Investors Technical Advisory Committee. The opposition may also have an impact on proposed changes to financial institutions' regulatory capital levels, which the banks claim are needed to ease the existing credit crunch and to avoid future credit messes like we have had in the past year.

Banks have claimed for years that mark-to-market rules force them to place unrealistically low values on illiquid or otherwise difficult to trade assets (known in mark-to-market accounting terms as "Level 3 Financial Instruments".)

The FASB/IASB proposals require "significant judgment" on the part of management in determining when a market isn't active. Once determined inactive, it would effectively allow management to ignore trading prices when coming up with a value for a security.

Those who have recently voiced opposition to the proposed rules say that they make it too easy for companies to reduce write-offs on impaired assets and make it easier for banks to keep their regulatory capital at unrealistic levels, allowing unstable financial institutions to make bad credit choices.

Mark-to-market accounting is under increasingly fierce attack by bankers who are lobbying hard for U.S. Congress to suspend or repeal mark to market rules. Bankers blame the rules for the current financial crisis.

Those who oppose the rules are against the banking industry's ability to make the statutory and regulatory regime work in their favour. They claim that the banks want accounting rules to change to fix irresponsible banking activity. While they agree that mark to market rules are not perfect, they do provide transparency in valuing assets and that such transparency helps investors.

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