As I was researching a question for a client a couple of weeks ago, I happened upon a love child of two of my pet peeve accounting standards:
FAS 115 (marketable securities) – especially the part permitting available-for-sale (AFS) classification;
FAS 52 (foreign currency translation) – practically every word of it makes my blood boil.
I have written a number of posts on FAS 52, and this one here hits the basics, should you feel the need to get canned up on the topic before reading further.
The love child I speak of is EITF 96-15, Accounting for the Effects of Changes in Foreign Currency Exchange Rates on Foreign-Currency-Denominated Available-for-Sale Debt Securities. Based on the title, it obviously deals with an interaction between FAS 52 and FAS 115. But, as to why it was issued three years after FAS 115 is an interesting question. For every crime committed with accounting standards against investors there is some other special interest being served. In this case, I can only guess at what it was, because the EITF issue summaries gave no hint as to how this bee got under their bonnets.
U.S. companies with foreign subsidiaries are generally reluctant to repatriate excess cash from their subsidiaries if negative tax effects attach to the decision. While waiting for a more opportune time to bring the cash back to the mother ship, they have to figure out where to park it; and one strategy is to invest it in marketable securities issued by other companies based in the U.S. From a risk management perspective, at least the money is invested in dollars. However, as I'm about to explain, earnings-obsessed managers might shy away from that choice, even if it is clearly the right thing to do from an economic standpoint.
FAS 52 has many generous elements, but it is relatively demanding in the area of "foreign currency transactions," which, simply stated, are receivables and payables denominated in a currency other than the entity's functional (foreign) currency. Normally, the effect of translating from the subsidiary's functional currency to dollars gets carried into the translation adjustment without affecting income. However, (with certain limited exceptions) the translation of "foreign currency transactions" must be reflected in income. (I have written about this in a previous post, here.)
The question addressed in EITF 96-15 is whether a marketable debt security designated as available-for-sale is a foreign currency transaction. That sounds like a serious question, but it's actually quite ridiculous. Notice that the EITF is not questioning whether marketable debt securities designated as "trading," or designated as "held-to-maturity" are foreign currency transactions – but only those debt securities that are arbitrarily and capriciously designated by management to be AFS. Knowing only that ought to tell you that the fix was in before the first word of debate had been uttered.
The way I thought about the issue before I did my research was, if I must say so myself, perfectly straightforward. First, an AFS marketable debt security is still at bottom a receivable; some arbitrary AFS designation doesn't change that. Second, FAS 52 is crystal clear as to the treatment of a receivable: it's a foreign currency transaction.
Notwithstanding the obvious, the EITF arrived at the opposite conclusion. By quasi-Talmudic logic that can only be fully appreciated by those ordained to be accounting policy makers, the EITF established a new record for the figurative hop, skip and jump that lead them to conclude that a marketable debt security designated as available-for-sale would not be a "monetary item" – whatever that has to do with the price of tea in China. Anyway, since only monetary items like receivables and payables qualify to be foreign currency transactions, an AFS marketable debt security cannot be one of them.
Eureka! Gold made from copper! In other words, make a loan marketable, arbitrarily and capriciously designate it as AFS to unmake its monetary item characteristics, and presto change-o, you no longer have to worry about income statement exposure. Do you remember the running gag on Late Nite with Conan O'Brien called "if they mated"? That's EITF 96-15: two wierdos, FAS 52 and FAS 115, matched by a funny guy to beget horrible looking thing that only a CPA could love.
Prior to EITF 96-15, an earnings-obsessed manager might have chosen to invest excess cash in marketable equity securities despite the additional economic risks relative to investing in debt, because the accounting risks happened to be low. That's because marketable equity securities are not receivables; by the perversity of the way FAS 52 converts foreign currencies to dollars, marketable securities might as well be equipment or inventory. Paradoxically, investing in debt would have created income statement volatility, even though economic risks would be lower than by investing in equities.
The clearly evident purpose of the EITF was to create a discretionary safe haven for excess foreign currency. Whether you think that is a good thing or not, it is not my point. What should be clear is that it is for reasons like this the accounting oligarchs deigned to create the grand ole EITF in the first place: to do whatever it takes to spice the sausage we call GAAP to managers' tastes.