Peeling away financial reporting issues one layer at a time

First Missive from the New Chief Accountant: Get Ready to Roll with IFRS

It came as no surprise that SEC Chief Accountant James Kroeker's first public foray, since Mary Schapiro deigned to remove "Acting" from his title, was to announce that the IFRS Roadmap has once again become a priority at the SEC. That should please his former employer, Deloitte, one of the Big Four IFRS Cheerleaders. To give you some indication of the goal-oriented culture from whence Kroeker came, here's a couple of examples from recent "surveys" Deloitte has been peddling.

In 2008, Deloitte asked financial professional what they thought were the benefits and costs of IFRS adoption. That sounds reasonable, but the next logical question appears to have been intentionally left off: which was whether respondents perceived that the benefits of IFRS adoption might not exceed the costs.

And, here's a sample question from a survey I received in my email this month:

In your view, what should the IASB's and FASB's approach be to convergence?

  • Extend a comprehensive convergence plan over the next 5-10 years
  • Achieve as much convergence as possible between now and 2011, and then focus on IFRS conversion at that point
  • Wind down convergence efforts at this time, and support IFRS conversion
  • Not sure

"Not sure"? What if you're "sure" or just pretty "sure"; but your answer is not one of the three that Deloitte is willing to tabulate? What if, heaven forefend, you are really "sure" that further convergence efforts would be a waste of time and money?

Answer to my questions: Should you dare opine that IFRS adoption is of no benefit, Deloitte doesn't want to have to acknowledge that gazillions of other like you perchance exist amongst the public, whose interests Deloitte has an ethical obligation to serve. These were not surveys; they were charades. They were put together to serve special interests – at the expense of the investors that Mr. Kroeker now is supposed to be working to protect.

Thus far, the text of Kroeker's remarks have yet to appear, as is customarily the case, on the SEC's website. Consequently, my comments will be based on press coverage from the following sources: CFO.com, Reuters and WebCPA.

Be Very Afraid … of a "Race to the Bottom"

Some people took IFRS adoption for dead, but Kroeker came to say that it has returned to becoming a priority at the SEC, in part because the financial crisis may have underscored its importance. It appears, for example, that without a single authority over standards, the U.S. and Europe may get caught up in a "race to the bottom" to set accounting standards most favorable to banks and to the detriment of investors.

While it is true that the EU has made its fears that lower-quality accounting standards in the U.S. will cause its banks competitive harm, more recent events don't comport with a race-to-the-bottom scenario. The FASB (as I have written here) is proposing that all loans should be fair valued. The FASB is clearing saying to the IASB, 'You can take the low road if you want, but we'll take the high road.' (By the way, there's no way that the IASB will follow the FASB's lead on this. If Sir David Tweedy so much as dreamed of requiring fair value for loans, he'd call up Charlie McCreevy the very next morning to apologize.)

Nonetheless, I do concede that, in the absence of SEC intervention, a race to the bottom is at least theoretically possible. But, for at least two pretty obvious reasons, that possibility is remote, if not downright silly to contemplate.

First, as a general matter, it is not clear that competition among jurisdictions inevitably results in a race to the bottom. As one of many possible counterexamples, consider the development of the state laws governing corporations. The Delaware laws are regarded by many to be least restrictive; however, many corporations choose to register elsewhere. There are two lessons from this that I can think of: (1) there is not necessarily one set of rules to suit all tastes; and (2) the stability and longevity of our system of corporate laws indicates that multiple law givers are preferable to giving the federal government a monopoly on that role. Thus, notwithstanding the 99 other reasons (okay, 10) I can think of, it is far from clear that granting a worldwide monopoly to the IASB is the most efficient thing to do.

Second, and this is the biggie, whatever Kroeker might fear about incentives of standard setters to debase their own coinage, his job, whether he likes it or not, is fundamentally to prevent a race to the bottom from even getting past the starting line. Various securities laws clearly state the authority of the SEC to set accounting standards for public companies. It must be said, however, that the SEC has published its policy that, for the most part, has left standard setting to the FASB. (For the rule wonks amongst you, that would be Section 101 of the codified Financial Reporting Releases.) Kroeker weakly assures us that the SEC will always be active in interpreting accounting standards adopted by SEC registrants, but the SEC historically has done much more than that – by judiciously picking its moments to pre-empt or outright reject FASB pronouncements.

Given Kroeker's own stated preference for uniformity in bank accounting and his own view of its significance in the global financial order, no opportunity could be more ripe than for the SEC to take the initiative on loan accounting. All Kroeker need simply do is to endorse the FASB's proposal to measure all loans at fair value, and counsel the IASB that they should get with the program. That oughta eliminate any fears of an accounting standards race-to-the-bottom.

But, alas, world peace is a more likely scenario; fair value for loans doesn't fly in the EU, so it surely cannot fly with Kroeker's former colleagues at Deloitte. Who wouldn't prefer to know what Kroeker's thinks about loan accounting than the Roadmap? But it's a steady diet of Roadmap that we will surely be force fed in the months to come.

Saying So Doesn't Make it So

As was sadly the case when Christopher Cox was SEC chair, I found nothing in Kroeker's remarks to indicate that he cares much about citing evidence in support of his ideology. Take these accounts:

  • Reuters – "Kroeker … said … that in the more than 200 comment letters the SEC has received on the proposal, it was 'resoundingly clear' that people agree there should be a single set of global high-quality accounting standards…"
  • WebCPA – A single set of global accounting standards is "…like motherhood and apple pie."

Given, as I reported here, that the overwhelming majority of investor responses to the Roadmap proposal want to tear it up, I don't know where he comes up with this stuff. And, don't forget about Deloitte's paranoia about even broaching the question in its "surveys." (By the way, Wayne Carnall, former PwC partner, and chief accountant of the Division of Corporation Finance had characterized the response rate as a pittance, and now Kroeker is spinning 180 degrees away from that.)

Ironically, Kroeker delivered his remarks before a meeting convened by the New York State Society of CPAs. It was there that another candidate for chief accountant, Charles Niemeier, trashed the whole notion of IFRS adoption for what it was: a full-employment act for the current chief accountants' former colleagues.

Not only were Kroeker's and Niemeier's positions as different as black and white, but the quality of their inputs and reasoning couldn't be more starkly contrasted. Niemeier's inspiration clearly sprang from a foundation of cited broad-based analyses produced by published rigorous, peer-reviewed, independent research. The source of Kroeker's remarks apparently came from nothing more than his own wishful thinking.

3 Comments

  1. Reply Raza September 25, 2009

    Hi Tom – an excellent post. I could not agree with you more here on Kroeker. Your post on the top 10 reasons as to why we should not adopt IFRS is on target as well – All the efforts of the past 50-60 years (especially)is going to be trashed in the name of convergence! Who says we do not have conflict of interest in hiring top people? : )

  2. Reply Glen September 27, 2009

    Tom, I agree with your comments that a potential “race to the bottom” among world standard setters if IFRS is adopted. It doesn’t seem likely that standard setters, whom have a duty to protect the integrity of the checks and balances impacting the financial reporting environment within their jurisdictions, will pursue a tit-for-tat response to regulatory events that occur in another jurisdiction.
    The irony is that adoption of IFRS will increase the likelihood of a global “race to the bottom” not among standard setters or regulators, but rather among companies that prepare the financial statements. This is so because a convergence to International Financial Reporting Standards, without a corresponding convergence of regulatory oversight of world auditors (not sure this would be a good idea) and corresponding convergence of legal systems (this will never happen), would lead to enforcement anomalies throughout the world. We know that regulatory enforcement and civil proceedings against bad guy preparers would be more intense in certain jurisdictions than in others.
    We also know that, based upon past experience, many individual companies will have no interest in preserving the integrity of the global financial reporting environment. Their sole motivation is to paint the best financial picture as is possible. The law of the jungle would eventually force most companies to seek to migrate and report, as much as possible, to those jurisdictions from where they would have the least exposure to legal or regulatory repercussions. The obvious irony is that IFRS will INCREASE THE LIKELIHOOD that there will be a global “race to the bottom” in terms of overall financial reporting integrity and quality.
    I, like you, am not a big fan of Convergence

  3. Reply Mark Johnson March 23, 2010

    Thanks for providing the useful article.Your post on the top 10 reasons as to why we should not adopt IFRS is on target as well – All the efforts of the past 50-60 years (especially)is going to be trashed in the name of convergence!
    The information is something that I will certainly take into account. Look forward to reading other articles.

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