Peeling away financial reporting issues one layer at a time

Spinning “Convergence”

"Converge" from Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary:

  1. to tend or move toward one point or another: come together: meet

  2. to come together and unite in a common interest or focus

  3. to approach a limit as the number of terms increases without limit

Now that it has become abundantly clear that convergence of IFRS and U.S. GAAP is not likely to happen, the proponents of IFRS adoption in the U.S. are trying to downplay its importance, and spinning what convergence is supposed to mean. That stratagem should come as no surprise to those who have observed the numerous instances where immutable plain English words have been misappropriated by accounting standards to serve as terms of art no more artful than Dickens' Artful Dodger.* (For some examples I have posted, see here, here and here.)

I have been meaning to write about the notion of convergence and its implications for some time now, but I was having trouble organizing my thoughts until I read D.J. Gannon's article, The IFRS Convergence Quandary.  Gannon is a Deloitte & Touche partner and as far as I can tell, he is his firm's point person on issues related to the SEC Roadmap.  (As Gannon seems to be singing in unison with the Big Four chorus, I hope that my criticisms are not taken to be a personal attack, but simply as a convenient point of reference.)

"Let's start with what convergence is. Convergence is designed to bring U.S. GAAP and IFRS closer together. The focus is on having similar general principles. Many have misinterpreted convergence as meaning the development of the same or "identical" standards. The reality is that convergence never really contemplated "identical" standards.

In fact, the FASB and IASB have acknowledged that doing so is too difficult to accomplish. This is evident in the boards' recently issued business combinations standards that contain differences in certain requirements. And, based on the boards' current thinking on topics such as consolidations and leasing, differences likely will exist in future converged standards."

I would like to suggest that a reading of very plain language in the Boards' 2008 joint progress reporton the Memorandum of Understanding between the FASB and the IASB indicates a very different view of "convergence":

"Convergence of accounting standards can best be achieved through the development of high quality, common standards over time." [italics supplied]

In other words, both Boards have stated that convergence was intended for GAAP and IFRS to actually meet, and not merely come "closer together." The distinction is crucial, because, by claiming that "convergence" has a meaning that is not in the ordinary-folks dictionary, proponents of IFRS adoption now seem to be trying to find excuses for a lack of progress on convergence—and more important, the increasingly dysfunctional relationships between prime movers at the IASB.  I also can't resist pointing out that the phrase "differences likely will exist in future converged standards" makes no sense without some special meaning for convergence, which neither appears to have been contemplated by the MOU nor accomodated by the dictionary definition of "converge."

As to what the FASB and IASB have "acknowledged" regarding their convergence efforts, the alleged facts are that IASB representatives sat in Norwalk as the FASB determined to finalize their new business combination standards (FAS 141(R) and FAS 160). Those envoys reportedly gave assurances that the areas in which the FASB was sticking its neck out would be adopted by the IASB as well. In essence, the IASB reneged on its assurances; and that's as close to an 'acknowledgement' that I am aware of.

Convergence Has Reached the End of the Road — Now What?

Actually, D. J. Gannon and I do agree on one thing. We both believe that convergence has probably gone as far as it can go. Our differences concern the question of what to do next. Gannon thinks that the U.S. should be ready for IFRS adoption:

"…[Y]ou only have to look at the recent events surrounding the current financial crisis. What historically have been seemingly harmless differences between U.S. GAAP and IFRS now are the source of much politicization.

Take, for example, the issue of when companies can change the classification of financial assets, which in turn impacts the measurement of these items. Prior to last year, the "technical differences" on classification between U.S. GAAP and IFRS were never considered a significant issue in practice. However, the financial crisis put the IASB under tremendous pressure to conform IFRS to arguably a "lesser-quality" answer under U.S. GAAP. This is only one example of literally hundreds of differences between U.S. GAAP and IFRS that likely will never be addressed by convergence."

Actually, it was the EU (not the "financial crisis") that put the IASB under "tremendous pressure," and just as the FASB responded to the U.S. Congress, the IASB caved. I see nothing compelling about this particular case, but that's not my main point. I find it curious that of the "literally hundreds of differences" that could have been picked, Gannon happened to pick one whose lessons are obscured by anomalous constraints imposed by inefficient banking regulations. Just because Congress and the EU want to shoot the messengers, that doesn't mean the U.S. should appoint a new messenger who will no doubt be harder to shoot the next time Congress wants to engage in that distasteful exercise.  

Also, my wandering mind wants to liken the relationship between the FASB and the IASB, as set out in the 2002 MOU, to a crumbling marriage. Both spouses have made some very poor choices in the past and it's as if one spouse is desperately imploring the other to stay together despite a tumultuous past together. "Everything could be just like it was when we first fell in love if we started a family—just like we were planning when we got engaged!" (sob, sob)

Whoa. I say divorce now rather than take a crazy risk like having kids. And, don't think further counseling is the answer either. As Gannon points out, there are "literally hundreds" of irreconcilable differences. Maybe none of those little tics and peeves matter by themselves, but collectively they're sure to drive the whole family nuts.

In case you don't get it from my cutsey troubled marriage analogy, let me spell it out for you.  Adopting IFRS any time soon will require a giant leap of faith that is not at all warranted by past actions. 

What Exactly is the Problem that IFRS Adoption Will Solve?

I learned from a colleague some years ago that the way to resolve a turf battle is to ask the power grabber to describe precisely what the problem is they are trying to solve, and how their solution solves that problem. 

Gannon's opening statement lays out that problem, insofar as IFRS adoption proponents would have the rest of us see it:  

"One thing most everyone in the financial reporting community can agree on is the need for a single set of high-quality globally accepted accounting standards."

Let's start with the presumption that IFRS is "high-quality." I see that as the biggest reason why the arguments of IFRS adoption proponents are not persuasive to skeptics such as myself. To my way of thinking, the one thing that most everyone in the financial reporting community really should finally admit is that IFRS is deeply flawed, and U.S. GAAP is no better.

In far too many respects that belie any pretense of quality, IFRS merely apes GAAP. The GAAP standards that have wrought the savings and loan crisis, the pension crisis, the thousands of pages of hedge accounting rules, hidden executive compensation costs, and now the worldwide financial crisis are converged all right. They're converged at a point barely above lousy.  In short, we will certainly be no closer to high quality accounting standards by adopting IFRS.

As to the advantages of having a "single set" of standards, it would certainly be desirable for all financial statements to spring from a single set of high-quality accounting standards, but we are worlds away from that utopia.   Indeed, dysfunction is beginning to take over the IASB's most prized relationship, the EU.  Charley McGreevy is grumbling that the IASB may not be able to be satisfy the financial reporting needs of the EU, so it remains a distinct worst-case scenario that the U.S. could adopt IFRS just as the EU is trashing it.

But let's ignore that, and assume that we do end up with a single set of accounting standards, albeit badly in need of improvement.  In that case, I predict that, with the U.S. voice muted, the chances will only increase that broken financial reporting standards will stay broken. I still have high hopes that better financial reporting standards can be obtained, but getting them is much more likely to spring from competition between standard setters than cooperation. In all things capitalistic, competition breeds excellence; and cooperation is the fuel for a race to the bottom.

In summary, failure to converge may be a "quandary" for IFRS adoption proponents.  Should we stop convergence efforts and set the stage for adoption?  "Absolutely," they say.  "Damn the risks and costs… full speed ahead (towards higher consulting fees)!"  But for me, the whole notion of convergence is, and always has been, nothing more than propaganda.

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*"He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough; and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see; but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man." (Oliver Twist)

4 Comments

  1. Reply Independent Accountant July 13, 2009

    Amen! I have long seen the IFRS push as a Big 87654 fee grab. I do not believe IFRS standards are better than GAAP, but worse! Heresy, I know.

  2. Reply Raza July 13, 2009

    I couldn’t agree with you more on this, Tom. Excellent post!

  3. Reply Accounting July 17, 2009

    I am not an accounting expert as you are but I Believe that IFRS and GAAP will merge at some point

  4. Reply Accounting Business for Sale October 31, 2011

    I am not so sure convergence is going to happen in this case. I dont think the IFRS and GAAP are going to get close enough to the same point for this to happen.

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