Mark to whatever the hell we want

Does Anyone Care About Fair Value Anymore?

Fair value is a simple enough concept even if you aren’t an accountant: stuff is worth what you could sell it for in the normal course of business, so that’s what you value it as when you’re adding up the value of the stuff you have. Easy, right? Not so easy when it comes to convergence.

The IASB has already expressed distaste for our fair value rules (among other things) and Accounting Onion recently shared some concerns that convergence might require a reasonable definition of “High Quality Accountant Standards” (abbreviated HQAS” by AO) agreed upon by both FASB and the IASB. So far I haven’t seen it, has anyone else?

Wait, AO launches off into it fhan I ever could.

Moreover, if there are some doubts as to what HQAS is, the SEC’s view could have been attended to more closely at the outset of formal convergence efforts (October 2002); for surely the SEC had convergence in mind when they published their congressionally mandated (see the Sarbanes Oxley Act, Section 108(d)) report on the feasibility of “principles-based” accounting standards in August 2003. According to the SEC, the “objectives-oriented” standards they are looking for from a standard setter should possess the following qualities:

“Be based on an improved and consistently applied conceptual framework;

Clearly state the accounting objective of the standard;

Provide sufficient detail and structure so that the standard can be operationalized and applied on a consistent basis;

Minimize exceptions from the standard;

Avoid use of percentage tests (“bright-lines”) that allow financial engineers to achieve technical compliance with the standard while evading the intent of the standard.”

Now, seven years later, the SEC’s battle plans have been subordinated by the din and desperation of convergence wars. Are any new standards from either board “based on an improved and consistently applied conceptual framework”? Obviously not, for nary a single alteration to any conceptual framework document has occurred in the last seven years. The existing definitions for assets and liabilities are like wooden ships sent to battle against nuclear submarines.

A few weeks back, I talked to David Larsen, CPA, Managing Director of global advising firm Duff & Phelps, LLP about this fair value bullshit that complicates my life by requiring comment every few weeks. David participated on the SEC mark-to-market panel in November of 2008 and serves on FASB’s Valuation Resource Group so he’s familiar with what I’m talking about.

David believes public opinion dominates the fair value argument and really doesn’t see what the big deal is. “The goal is to make financial statements more readable,” he said of fair value’s ultimate intention. He’s a fan of transparency on the face of financial statements and more disclosures. Who doesn’t like that?

He says fair value is purely measurement and disclosure, nothing to get upset about.

In my opinion, fair value was our first test to see if we could handle the principles widely used in international accounting “standards” (hopefully “HQAS”) before we actually committed to adopting them and we failed. If you wonder why the IASB wants to hold the floor when it comes to convergence, you only have to stare our treatment of fair value right between the eyes.

It should have worked but our “P for Principles” in GAAP didn’t adequately prepare us to handle it.

The FASB Buckles

bob herz.jpgBob Herz must be feeling a little blue now that his buddy Tweeds announced that he is hanging up his eyeshade.

This melancholic state has apparently led Herz to the conclusion that it’ll be okay to let banking regulators “use their own judgment” when it comes to letting banks stray from almighty GAAP:

“Handcuffing regulaorting GAAP to always fit the needs of regulators is inconsistent with the different purposes of financial reporting and prudential regulation,” Mr. Herz said in the prepared text.
“Regulators should have the authority and appropriate flexibility they need to effectively regulate the banking system,” he added. “And, conversely, in instances in which the needs of regulators deviate from the informational requirements of investors, the reporting to investors should not be subordinated to the needs of regulators. To do so could degrade the financial information available to investors and reduce public trust and confidence in the capital markets.”

Mr. Herz said that Congress, after the savings and loan crisis, had required bank regulators in 1991 to use GAAP as the basis for capital rules, but said the regulators could depart from such rules.

Herz is calling it “decoupling” of the rules which sounds a hell of a lot like “the rules are the rules only when they don’t work out so well for banks.” Not sure about anyone else but it sounds like Herz is caving to political pressure after insisting that everyone butt out.

Because if we read that correctly, any time banking regulators are feeling sketchy about the market’s ability to put value on the banks’ assets, they’ll just call a time out on fair value with no ringing up the FASB, auditors, or anybody else to get a permission slip?

Will banking regulators even know when the market is being irrational? If you were to ask JDA, she’d probably say, “No fucking way.”

A less irreverent but similar point of view from Daniel Indiviglio at the Atlantic:

I worry that if regulators are provided this flexibility, then they will always suspend mark-to-market accounting when a crisis hits. But in cases where the market permanently corrects the value of assets downward, their values would remain elevated in the regulators’ eyes. Then, once the crisis appears to improve, banks will eventually cause a sort of secondary crisis when they are forced to begin realizing the decline in the value of those assets.
Moreover, I worry about how investors will react to this change. Imagine you’re an investor. A crisis hits, and regulators step in to suspend mark-to-market accounting for a bank you own equity in. Are you worried? I sure would be — regulators were so concerned about the bank’s assets that they felt forced to suspend mark-to-market accounting! As an investor, I’ll still do my own math to figure out what I think the bank’s assets are worth. So investors might dump the stock anyway, endangering the value of the institution despite this move by regulators.

So it’s fair value unless we’re in a potential shit + fan situation. In the off-chance that the regulators recognize the impending disaster, they’ll tell the banks to forget fair value for now. Then once everything is hunky dory, we go back to fair value. Whatever, we’re over it.

Board to Propose More Flexible Accounting Rules for Banks [Floyd Norris/NYT]
Should Regulators Be Able To Suspend Accounting Rules? [The Atlantic]
Also see: Decouple US accounting rules, bank regulation-FASB [Reuters]