Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Impairment Bucket List

No, it’s not a list of cool impairments that an accountant might calculate in his lifetime, if he or she had the time and luck.

Accounting standard-setters are working on a new method of categorizing impaired financial instruments.

The recent credit crisis has advanced a need for revision of the current model as large financial institutions did not agree with existing standards. Large banks, for example, claim that the existing standards result in a “pro-cyclical” result. That means that when times were good, they accounting rules made things look better, faster. And when times were bad, things looked bas faster. Or went to hell faster, as we saw in 2009/03. The rules also impact other sectors.

Credit Crisis Effects
In 2008, banks were following a system of incurred loss reporting, meaning assets were marked down, or impaired, only once their value had demonstrably fallen. Critics said this caused catastrophic shortcomings in financial early warning systems, meaning banks were unable to build up reserves for expected losses and were woefully unprepared when asset values suddenly went into freefall.

The IASB has developed a more forward-looking set of rules for calculating impairment.

“Three-Bucket Solution”

One approach, and the major one being advocated now, is called the three-bucket approach.

One pre-IFRS problem was earnings management, when banks would set aside provisions with little justification, only to release them in lean years to plump up earnings. Critics said this made it hard for investors to get a handle on banks' true financial positions; from these concerns was born incurred loss reporting.

After the credit crisis, the accounting problem was how to permit the judgment essential for expected loss provisioning without paving the way for a potential return to earnings management.

The three-bucket approach aims to break down assets according to impairments, keeping a tighter rein on provisioning and giving analysts a clearer picture of financial health.

Into bucket one goes 'healthy' assets, those for which banks expect a reasonable return and need only make minimal provisions. Bucket two is reserved for assets with some level of impairment, but which are not completely useless, while bucket three is for assets that are undeniably 'bad'.

Throughout its life, the asset can move between buckets according to macro- and micro-economic triggers, hopefully allowing banks to make exactly the right provision at exactly the right time.

An example might be a bundle of mortgages. The bank grants the mortgages, and works out on the basis of historical data that it is likely to take an 80% return on them. It therefore makes provision for the 20% loss and the mortgage bundle sits in bucket one until a trigger makes re-evaluation necessary.

This trigger could be a macro-economic event such as falling oil prices, a contracting economy or rising unemployment. From this, the bank might deduce that a greater proportion of mortgage holders will struggle to pay and shift the asset bundle into bucket two, requiring higher provisions to be made.

For the mortgages to jump to bucket three, they must be demonstrably impaired, for example when the inhabitants of a town hit by unemployment begin defaulting on their mortgages. This is essentially an incurred loss model and would result in very high or 100% provisioning for the de-valued assets.

Unfinished business
Like all theoretical models, there is much uncertainty to be hammered out. What constitutes a bucket-moving trigger? When an asset is impaired, who decides whether the impairment is expected – therefore already provided for – or unexpected, meaning more cash should be set aside? How will auditors examine such a complicated model and will it really prevent earnings management if banks are determined to do it?

A number of question exist, and will need to be ironed out prior to implementation.

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