Peeling away financial reporting issues one layer at a time

IFRS Adoption Critics: More Silent Majority than Vocal Minority

Given my public record of opposition to IFRS adoption, you might be surprised to know that I have taught courses on IFRS for over ten years, beginning in Switzerland and the UK. If anybody is interested, I will be presenting a two-day IFRS/GAAP comparison courses in Chicago and Vegas this November; and I gladly collaborate on the delivery of those courses with representatives of two Big Four firms.

I try to stay away from blatant self-promotion in the body of a blog post, but I wanted to make the point that I am not an IFRS newbie, and have thought about the problems of which I blog for years. I also strongly believe that certain aspects of IFRS are much stronger than U.S. GAAP.

The larger point, however, is that I actually do have a significant stake in IFRS adoption; yet, for reasons only a psychiatrist might be capable of explaining, I persist in my financially self-destructive rants.

Imagine you're my shrink. As I lie on your couch, I tell you that my attitudes toward IFRS adoption are rooted in my childhood. (Surprise!) Both my parents fled from Nazi Germany, but my Dad was involuntarily detoured in a Nuremberg prison and Dachau concentration camp before managing to finally extricate himself from miscreants' clutches.

After immigrating via the UK to the USA, Dad soon thereafter entered the military (he was drafted after first volunteering and being turned away). He was returned to Germany on D-Day +30 as a POW interrogator. It's a long and unique story, which late in life he wrote about in a book that I posted on line.

Obviously (I try not to use that word very much), my dad's perspectives on life were shaped by these experiences. As to their effect on me, his bitterness rarely came to the surface, except indirectly when he was motivated to speak out against some proximate injustice. Dad was non-violent in actions and manner, but his words were sharp and he didn't give a hoot what others thought of his pithiness and directness. He was only self-conscious about his thick German accent (think Henry Kissinger). Also, I'm sure that his "attitude" and accent did not help his career aspirations at AT&T. Anyway, I think that is the font of my self-destructive outspokenness.

I bring this up now, as I am about to present you with a quote from a kindred spirit, and former Big Four auditor, who shall remain nameless; his nom de email is SuperHeater, and I have no idea what that is supposed to mean, but I have a pretty good idea that his brief turn as a Big Four auditor shaped his perspectives. Here's an excerpt from one of his war stories:

"I knew I needed to leave [the Big Four firm I was working for] after about three months. I had questioned a client (politely) about how they arrived at a $90,000 bad debt reserve on an A/R balance of $10,000,000 for unsecured receivables where the aging detail showed items 500 days old. I was told by the assistant controller that the 'CFO knows our customers, and knows what invoices they'll pay.'

The in-charge senior associate told me, 'I don't care if it's adequate, I care that it's there'- so much for adequate audit evidence and professional skepticism.

The following day I was summoned to meet with the partner on the job (who happened to be the HR partner) in order to be told 'the client had a complaint,' but offered no details. As the client was a trucking company that financed their equipment and was surely trying not to violate the current asset requirement of their debt instruments I suppose that's not hard to figure out. I'd like to say that was my only eye-opening experience, but it wasn't. There were screaming 'seniors' and days when testing exceptions were explained away with 'this appears to be a one-off transaction, P/f/p' rather than expanding the test sample as indicated by the audit plan."

I don't receive many substantive comments on my posts, (roughly two per post), but they are about 95 percent supportive. (BTW, those who have chosen to express their disagreement with my points of view are invariably respectful.) Thus, I want to at least surmise that SuperHeater's sentiments (with certain colorful features omitted) are generally in the same direction as those of a large proportion of my readers. In addition, the comments about how the market for auditing staff will shift after IFRS adoption is a fresh perspective for me.

"Having spent an unpleasant year at KPMG as an older, nontraditional hire and observed their methods and now currently employed at an enterprise where Deloitte is an IT contractor, I remain convinced that the only people who think IFRS adoption (either wholesale, convergence or some other method) is desirable are the Big 4, major transnational corporations and the SEC.

Additionally, the cheerleaders' affection for IFRS has absolutely nothing to do with any intrinsic superior quality, simplicity, brevity or any other (supposed but immeasurable) attribute of IFRS; it's about the ease and profitability of the cheerleaders' enterprises. The transnationals have a similar perspective; the SEC is a study in "regulatory capture", with its bureaucrats giving speeches and missing the likes of Enron, Worldcom, Adelphia & Madoff.

However, the leader of the pack is the Big Four. Like most modern propagandists, they furiously release marketing information disguised as objective technical analysis. I personally think the IFRS' "ordained clergy" are easily identified by the use of the word "robust." We are supposed defer to the presumed expertise of Big 4 partners and senior managers about the arcana of accountancy-especially when they use nebulous language and speak with the authority of historicity with constant references to IFRS as "inevitable."

For years the Big 4 have envied their clients who outsource their production to places like India, China, and other lands, where there's plenty of high intellects looking for opportunity. As the birthrate has fallen in America, it has been harder to represent the typical associate's position as something more glamorous than the fraternity hazing it resembles. The Big 4 have copied the outsourcing on their IT side, where there's no credentialing impediments; but on the attest side – well, that's different. Sure, you can staff an office full of staff and senior associates from other countries; language barriers don't matter that much when you don't speak to the client that much. Also, we know they'll work like the dickens because they're working for permanent US residency and having family half a world away creates less desire for time off.

However, when you get to be a manager, you need to have that CPA-and the exam is hard. Harder still, when you don't speak English, let alone when you have to learn a new book of rules. Do away with GAAP, you do away with the need to comb among potential US born associates with their tender egos, high debt loads and social and esteem needs. Once we're on IFRS, the Big Four becomes a truly global enterprise; picking off bright minds from lands of less opportunity-obtaining a deep inventory of intellectual capital at distress sale prices. Perhaps at the Big Four, the "A" in CPA stands for arbitrageur. I suppose it's a losing battle, because in the end, some very deep and mercenary pockets are driving this surrender of US commercial sovereignty. Now we know why Mr. Niemeier was passed over for the CA job."

The supporters of IFRS adoption have long-dismissed detractors like myself, Charles Niemeier and SuperHeater as comprising nothing more than a "vocal minority." The tepid-to-hostile feedback on the Roadmap should have put that libel to bed, but the recent remarks of chief accountant Kroeker and SEC chair Schapiro indicate that they are willing and able to follow Christopher Cox's oft-repeated example of plowing straight through reasoning critics behind nothing more than a blast of hot air.

I'll soon be posting a link to an online survey of attitudes towards IFRS adoption. Whatever the truth is, I want it to be more clearly evident.

4 Comments

  1. Reply Steve September 30, 2009

    Enjoy your blog. Putting aside the debate about which standar is better, I just want to ask one question: how many people can say they manage to master the US GAAP?
    It needs training just to understand how the codification works.
    Take a look at FIN 48. Irronically, it has become an excelent money making venue for these accounting firms. It is only an interpretation, but how much money have these big accounting firms earned to help companies understand it and implement it?
    But we should seriously ask ourself, how much has this “superior” GAAP helped improve financial reporting?

  2. Reply Tom Selling September 30, 2009

    Hi, Steve:
    I fully agree with your sentiments. In my view, both GAAP and IFRS are overloaded with unnecessary rules and complicatons that don’t benefit investors. Having said that, my hope for constant improvement in U.S. financial reporting standards will diminish if the U.S. regulators merely have a seat at the table.
    Best,
    Tom

  3. Reply Darrell October 1, 2009

    The “process” has become too infused with conflicts of interest and politics to result in a balanced, well-reasoned outcome for investors and preparers. Secondly, it is clear the current policital and regulatory leadership has no reservations regarding unfunded mandates. So long FAF and FASB!

  4. Reply David Albrecht January 22, 2010

    Tom,
    As another voice in the vocal minority, I applaud you for such a finely written piece.
    It is apparent to me that the SEC/fed/treasury professionals (non-politial appointees) have adopted IFRS. Its foundation lies in economic arguments such as EMH and “it’s only accounting, the market can see through any accounting disclosure).
    Thanks for writing such a good post.
    David Albrecht

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