It’s not surprising that FASB’s Bob Herz was called to submit comment on the House Financial Services Committee’s hearings on Lehman – more specifically, Public Policy Issues Raised by the Report of the Lehman Bankruptcy Examiner – and it’s even less surprising that Herz stated that the FASB will be ready when the SEC is to alter repo accounting rules should this be, you know, a big deal going forward.
As many of you already know, the FASB has a history of taking a reactive stance to accounting issues during the financial crisis (case in point: mark to market) and repo accounting is no exception. Sort of like the SEC cracking down on Madoff-esque Ponzi schemes after Madoff, it defeats the purpose as financial criminals very rarely repeat techniques that have already been uncovered and prosecuted. But oh well, showing up late to the party is still showing up and proves FASB is at least paying attention.
Herz’s testimony reinforces FASB’s position as standards setter, not regulator. Working with the SEC will allow the regulators to put together a case for accounting standards that could address repo accounting should the SEC discover it is widespread among financial firms but for now, FASB will be sitting back and waiting to see what the SEC comes up with.
As it turns out, FASB isn’t nearly as reactive as it appears on the surface: plenty of guidance already exists for handling these transactions and perhaps had Ernst & Young been looking hard enough, they would have easily found something amiss.
When developing the guidance for determining whether a company maintains effective control over transferred assets, the FASB noted repo transactions have attributes of both sales and secured borrowings. On one hand, having a forward purchase contract is not the same as owning the asset. On the other hand, the contemporaneous transfer and repurchase commitment entered into in a repo transaction raises questions about whether control actually has been relinquished. To differentiate between the two, the FASB developed criteria for determining whether a company maintains effective control over securities transferred in a repo transaction.
Control? Is that was this about?
Regardless, FASB is prepared to offer even more guidance on the matter should current guidance not be sufficient to make sense of future contracts that could be used in a fraudulent manner. Of course, the financial criminals have likely already discovered a new, innovative way to hide liabilities or stash nasties off-sheet but instead of looking for those, the SEC will be working closely with FASB in the future to prevent another Lehman. History always repeats itself but, sadly, financial crimes rarely do. It appears our friends at FASB never got that memo.