Peeling away financial reporting issues one layer at a time

The Speak-No-Evil FASB

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My previous post lambasted the FASB for shilling the SEC's whacky proposal to measure the year-end value of oil and gas reserves at average prices for the year – instead of the year-end price. Since then, I had two follow-on thoughts; the first one I'll mention is not related to the cheeky title of today's post, but it leads into the one that is.

A More Reasonable Way to 'Modernize' Oil and Gas Disclosures

A week ago, I forgot to mention that there really is a reasonable way to enhance the measurements of year-end values of oil and gas reserves, the ostensible goal of the SEC's recent actions.   But, it has nothing at all in common with the SEC/FASB approach of using averages.  What I have in mind is 'sensitivity analysis.'

Investors can use information about the current value of reserves today, but they also can use information concerning risk of changes in value. Financial reporting rarely reports that kind of information, but there have been movements in that direction of late, and by the SEC no less. Most prominently, Item 305 of Regulation S-K requires quantitative measures of market risk sensitive financial instruments, which often takes the form of some version of a sensitivty analysis.  In addition, Financial Reporting Release No. 60, urges companies to provide a sensitivity analysis covering assumptions underlying critical accounting policies.

So why not provide a sensitivity analysis regarding the value of oil and gas reserves? It doesn't have to be complicated, and the resulting disclosure could be as clear and simple as the following:

Using end-of-year energy prices, the present value of proven reserves is $100 million as of December 31, 20×0. Energy prices during the year ranged from 80 to 130 percent of the year-end prices. If the lowest (highest) energy prices during the year were substituted in our year-end present value calcultions, the lower end of the range would result in a $50 million valuation, and the higher end of the range would result in a $130 million valuation. The range of valuations is not proportional to the range of prices for the following reasons: [would be listed here.]

Sensitivity analysis of valuations can always be informative, but particularly so in the extractive industries. A significant portion of the value of the investment in a project can be traced to 'real options'; e.g., to invest in additional development if prices rise, or to shut down operations until such time as commodity prices recover. In fact, in the three decades since the SEC came out with its original version of oil and gas disclosures, the topic of 'real options' has gone from esoteric to an essential component of any capital budgeting decision by the larger players in the extractive industries. By the same token, investors are in a better position to value options (especially those that are not recognized on the balance sheet) if they can more reliably estimate the volatility of a project's value.

Covering Ears, Eyes and Mouths

Maybe you like my suggestion to add sensitivity analysis to the present value of reserves disclosures, or maybe you don't. Whatever your opinion, you should definitely be incredulous that the FASB appears unwilling to give any alternative to the SEC's hatchet job so much as lip service.

Now that the ball is in the FASB's court, one must ask whether all of them have truly put their brains in neutral, or whether they have even considered alternatives to the SEC's approach.  If they have chosen to put their brains in gear, we certainly can't tell from their proposing document or any other public comments. At least at the SEC, dissenting board members give speeches that reveal their own preferences and reasoning. It appears that FASB members, perhaps as a matter of basic economic incentives (i.e., money), don't dare to do the same. Based on the way the last investor representative on the board was treated, it's pretty safe to assume that, if you are not a go-with-the-flow sort of chap, chances of getting your $500,000/year position renewed for a second five-year term are slim to none.

Here's my prediction as to what is going to happen with the ED. The Board is going to vote 3 -2 in favor of measuring the value of proven reserves at average prices. Two board members, Linsmeier and Siegel, are going to furnish compelling dissents, and maybe another financial columnist will celebrate the dynamic duo for the strength of character they displayed while others around them were busy shilling. But in the final analysis, after-the-fact minority dissents will have no effect on anything real or important. As my father too-often said, "If all you have to stand on are your principles, then you may as well remain seated."

Yes, minutes of open meetings report board members' comments leading up to exposure documents, but who reads them? I might if I were to have trouble falling asleep at night. Why aren't formal dissents registered in exposure drafts? Why don't board members, as SEC commissioners often do, provide their individual views when they go around making speeches? For true 'due process' to occur, we need more open public debate on the issues. Commenters on FASB proposals need to have some idea of the level of consensus within the board.

I suspect that every single FASB member thinks that measuring the value of proven reserves by average, instead of current, prices is a significant step in the opposite direction from quality financial reporting. So, perhaps I am being unfair in calling on only Tom Linsmeier and Marc Siegel to carry the flag of reason and investors' interests. But, no good deed goes unpunished. That's what they deserve for taking principled stands in the past – even if, thus far, they have amounted to little more than empty gestures.

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1 Comment

  1. Reply Independent Accountant October 28, 2009

    I agree. It would be useful to have three disclosures: one at the end of year price, the other at 75% of this price and the third at 125% of the price.

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