Peeling away financial reporting issues one layer at a time

Merrily We Roll Along — Forward and Up

It took seven years for the FASB and IASB to publish its "preliminary views" exposure draft (ED) on the fundamental issues addressed by the Boards' joint financial statement presentation project. And just recently, the FASB staff has posted a ten-page tabular summary of their "tentative decisions as of December 2009."

My own views, which I have expressed in four previous points (see the list, below) are neither "preliminary" nor "tentative." Granted, I am not bound by due process constraints, but eight years and counting has been far too long to wait for closure on a project that will have absolutely nothing to say about recognition or measurement. As my previous posts will indicate, I have also been extremely frustrated by some of the puff-pastry notions contained in the DP—and that are still on the table in some form or another:

First, there is no investor value created from allowing management to determine how a transaction is classified on the financial statements. Yes, every business is different, but there are still only two principles-based categories of transactions/events in which an enterprise may engage: 'financial' and 'non-financial.'

Even rudimentary delineation of the non-financial category into 'operating' and 'investing' activities has proven futile, and should be abandoned. For example, is the acquisition of inventory an investing or operating activity? Is purchasing one new machine to replace a worn-out machine on the factory floor arrayed with 1000 machines an investing or an operating decision? At best, even the operating/investing dichotomy it is too subjective to be audited, and at bottom, it is a distinction without a substantive difference.

Even allowing that there are some informative ways to further delineate ongoing operating activities, affording management the latitude to make those determinations is a loser before the opening bell is rung. Accounting standards should require a principled separation of financing from non-financing, but that would challenge the sacred cow of interest cost capitalization—so it ain't gonna happen.

Second, no investor value can possibly be created simply by re-arranging the financial statement deck chairs, even in the name of a newly coined "cohesiveness principle." Disaggregation is where it's at, and in that regard there does happen to be a role for that idea; as I am about to explain, however, it appears to not a role envisaged by the Boards.

A Promising New Direction

Having gotten that off my chest, I do very much want this latest missive to be seen in a positive and constructive light. To wit, there is one new piece of information, to be found in the very last item of that ten-page table that knocked my socks off. It's somewhat lengthy, but worth repeating:

"Replace the proposed reconciliation … [of cash flows to comprehensive income] with an analysis of the changes in balances of all significant asset and liability line items. Each line item analysis should distinguish the following components:

a. Changes due to cash inflows and cash outflows

b. Changes resulting from noncash (accrual) transactions that are repetitive and routine in nature (for example, credit sales, wages, material purchases)

c. Changes resulting from noncash transactions or events that are nonroutine or nonrepetitive in nature (for example, acquisition or disposition of a business)

d. Changes resulting from accounting allocations (for example, depreciation)

e. Changes resulting from accounting provisions/reserves (for example, bad debts, obsolete inventory)

f. Changes resulting from remeasurements

Present information about remeasurements in the financial statements.

• FASB: require disaggregation of remeasurements on the face of the statement of comprehensive income (SCI) in a columnar format. Those two columns should be labelled total comprehensive income and remeasurements.

• IASB: require presentation of remeasurements in the notes to financial statements.

Modify the definition of a remeasurement. The working definition of remeasurement is: an amount recognised in comprehensive income that reflects the effects of a change in the carrying amount of an asset or liability to a current price or value (or to an estimate of a current price or value). A current price or value includes the following measurement attributes: fair value, fair value less costs to sell, value in use and net realisable value. [bold italics supplied; dates omitted]"

This is pretty big news, AND IT COULD BE HUGE! However, I'm afraid the devil will be in the implementation details. That's why I'm going to spell it out for the Boards in simple terms: what is actually needed, why it's needed, and how to do it.

The What The Boards enunciated in their original exposure draft an objective that financial statements should be presented in a manner that "presents a cohesive financial picture of an entity's activities." I'm not exactly sure what they mean by "cohesive" even after looking up that term in a few dictionaries.  Nonetheless, as a metaphor to financial reporting, the term resonates as regards the relationship between financial statement notes and the financial statements themselves. "Cohesiveness" should mean that the financial statements hold together, in a coherent or cohesive manner, the quantitative information in the notes. Stated even more plainly, every balance sheet line item should be "rolled forward", and each line item in the 'flow financial statements' (e.g., income statement, statement of cash flows, statement of changes in shareholders' equity) can be found to be the sum of line items in those balance sheet item roll forwards. That's what I mean by HUGE.

The Why — As I have already stated, disaggregation is where it's at. With XBRL around the corner, analysts will most certainly be competing with each other to create the sexiest non-GAAP measures of financial performance they can by plucking a little tagged something from here, and combining it with a little tagged something from there. If you're a sports fan, you are probably aware of all the new and interesting baseball stats created by imaginative analysts—once they were able to get their hands on the underlying data.

The statistics revolution in financial reporting should make the baseball stats revolution look like—well, what it is—a mere game. To pick just two of hundreds of possibilities an analyst should be able to identify each component of a foreign currency translation adjustment, and decide whether to accept it as presented, or to make one's own pro forma adjustments. Or, if you don't like capitalized interest, an analyst should be able to reverse every stinking dollar of it.

A more subtle, but equally important reason for comprehensive roll forwards is that it will be a huge enhancement to external controls over financial reporting (and along with that, something for an auditor to really audit). Much has been said and written about the importance of internal controls over financial reporting, but a financial regulator's basic responsibility is not merely to mandate internal controls, but to impose substantive external controls. Any control expert should tell you that if you can't roll forward a balance sheet account, you can't hardly test its accuracy. If everyone should be doing their roll forwards internally, and they are quite obviously an efficient form of disclosure, then what is keeping regulators from mandating them? (The sad answer to this question shall be provided anon.)

The How — The extract I have provided from that ten-page table leaves a lot of implementation questions unanswered; and admittedly, it's only a summary of what the Boards may be thinking. The area of greatest concern to the Boards appears to be the level of detail to be provided in the roll forwards.

Once again, that new-fangled "cohesiveness principle" makes the answer to their dilemma straightforward: the Boards need merely to specify that the line-item detail of the roll forwards must be sufficient to allow "roll ups" to each of the lines in the flow statements. For example, if the FASB wants to separately identify "remeasurements" (more on that unfortunate term later) on the statement of comprehensive income, then the remeasurement components in a balance sheet line item roll forward must perforce be set forth.

I am compelled to add as an aside, though, that if the board is struggling to define "remeasurement," they should first acknowledge that the term is already spoken for in another part of GAAP. ASC 830-10-45-1 (within the Foreign Currency Matters topic) identifies remeasurement as a process by which the books of record of an entity are converted to its "functional currency." Contrary to the Boards' proposed new definition, what is currently regarded as remeasurement does not necessarily result in "current prices" or "current values." So, if new terminology is indeed required, which I recognize is likely the case, I would humbly suggest a couple of terms that convey the objective more straightforwardly: like "revaluaton" or "valuation adjustment."

Alas, the "Why Not"

The sad reality is that issuers will balk severely and senselessly at comprehensive roll forwards. And, who knows whether the toes-in-water approach now suggested by the Boards will prevail, or perhaps ultimately drive a wedge between them? I'm betting that the FASB will insist on something at least close to the sensible approach that they have finally put forward.  Meanwhile, the EU will threaten to ditch the IASB unless they get back with the a la carte chicken-salad-for-issuers program they have ordered.

As for yours truly, I don't believe issuers who will claim that balance sheet roll forwards (much less a direct cash flow statement) are a bridge too far – and neither should any reasonably intelligent undergraduate accounting major. If consolidated income statements already articulate to consolidated balance sheets, then why can't the components of those statements articulate? The simple answer is that they should – and they must.

Simple can be beautiful; that's why I like accounting. Comprehensive roll forwards that permit comprehensive roll ups would not solve every single problem that exists in regard to financial statement presentation.  But, by comparison to every other concept or objective offered up by the Boards during the past eight years and counting of this project, everything else is weak tea.

*Those four posts are as follows:

The "Preliminary Views" on Financial Statement Presentation: Seven Years of Deliberation for This?

Financial Statement Presentation: The Sequel

Making Financial Statement Presentation Simple: Mandate Account Reconciliations

Financial Statement Presentation: Will Issuers or Investors Prevail?

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