If you were to ask a financial regulator what 'investor protection' means in the context of accounting standards, the textbook response will have something to do with ensuring that investors have enough information to make informed investment and voting decisions.* Indeed, that's what also has been taken as gospel since 1978 when the FASB published its Statement of Financial Accounting Concepts No. 1:
"[F]inancial reporting should provide information to help investors, creditors, and others assess the amounts, timing and uncertainty of prospective net cash inflows to the related enterprise." (¶ 37)
I believe this has been the guiding philosophy of standard setting ever since. It is time to recognize that it is a failed philosophy.
Informativeness is in the Eyes of the Lobbyist with the Most Juice
First, to rank accounting alternatives on the dimensions of their 'informativeness' is deceptively difficult, if not just downright impossible. That's why FASB "due process" takes forever, and is more about politics than reasoned thinking. But, even if the goal of enhancing informativeness were the correct goal for regulators, what can be said about the progress toward informativeness that has been made over the ensuing one-third of a century? Not a whole heck of a lot.
Lawrence Summers gave a speech in 1999, when he was deputy Treasury secretary, which contained this remark about financial reporting:
"If you ask why the American financial system succeeds, at least my reading of the history would be that there is no innovation more important than that of generally accepted accounting principles; it means that every investor gets to see information presented on a comparable basis; that there is discipline on company managements in the way they report and monitor their activities." (source: a 2009 NYT column by Paul Krugman)
I am resurrecting those remarks from an earlier post because they demonstrate how central financial accounting is to the functioning of our economy; and conversely, the vast destruction that can occur when accounting doesn't work as it should. Perhaps, from Summers' perspective in 1999, accounting standards were more or less okay, even though he ignores the S&L debacle and the role played by inadequate loan accounting standards. But from the perspective of 2011, after all that has befallen us in the ensuing 12 years, surely he would have to recognize that accounting has become more a part of the problem than holding out much promise for being a part of the solution. (For a more contemporaneous viewpoint, I suggest you read Floyd Norris's recent column on the utter mess and disgrace that is the accounting for financial instruments.)
Some would say that the mission of the FASB has been to institute improvements to accounting standards, and on a case-by-case basis, there is no disputing that some improvements have been made. But, despite all the new rules and complexities, it's still much too easy to smooth income, and to obfuscate or just plain hide important information about risks and uncertainties. All in the name of informativeness, U.S. GAAP (more so, IFRS) gifts issuers with free choices (explicitly or often implicitly) among accounting treatments, and the privilege to make highly subjective and self-serving estimates. Nowadays, few are surprised at how powerless or unwilling, auditors are to stop issuers from making two plus two seem like something other than four. (Indeed, an important lesson here is that audit reform may not be possible without accounting standards reform.)
Accounting Standards as Weapons of Financial Destruction
Second, there is an aspect of reality that goes essentially unacknowledged in the FASB, SEC or IASB literatures: financial statements issued for public consumption routinely double as convenient, albeit very dangerous, management control systems.
For example, the attainment of a pre-determined amount of earnings under U.S. GAAP can be a surrogate for achieving underlying economic goals. This may ostensibly be the case because of the difficulty in measuring achievement of real targets. I say "ostensibly," because I'm not confident that enough corporate board members sufficiently appreciate the tradeoffs involved; in particular, the difference between reported net income and real profitability. Even granting a genuine willingness on the part of board members to exercise due care, they seem to be too easily won over to the point of view that game-conducive earnings-based compensation is the most effective way to achieve congruency between management's preferences and shareholder value maximization.
In short, "what gets measured gets done." Yet, by fixating on informativeness, the FASB has succeeded in ignoring this self-evident maxim throughout its entire history. And in doing so, the FASB (with the SEC standing idly by) has enabled a national tragedy at many levels: obscene levels of compensation awarded to management, impairment of U.S. competitiveness, mass disruptions of financial markets, shareholder value destruction – not to mention the chaos and misery inflicted on honest, hardworking and capable individuals.
Give Accounting Back to Shareholders
We desperately need to figure out how to make accounting part of the solution instead of a big, big part of the problem.
To start, we need to shift the primary emphasis of accounting standard setting from informativeness to 'stewardship' and 'external control.' By stewardship, I mean economic reality: the identification and valid measurement of the net resources that management has been entrusted to invest and utilize; whether management is taking the appropriate level of risk; and whether management has generated a satisfactory return to shareholders. External control is an outcome of a focus on stewardship in financial reporting, and by stewardship I am referring to the need to explicitly recognize that accounting standards have had, and will continue to have a profound impact on corporate decision making. (Pardon the digression, but this consideration by itself should be sufficient reason to stop all the IASB adoption nonsense.)
Granted, no set of rules can result in an accounting for all of the assets and obligations of an enterprise; and by extension, no set of internal and external controls can be expected to put a complete halt to shareholder value destruction through accounting-based managerial decision making. But, the least regulators can do is to endeavor to recognize a reasonable set of an entity's assets and liabilities, and to measure them in sensible economic terms. For a start, we should be using constant units of purchasing power instead of nominal currency units in comparisons. Even in times of merely low inflation, It is not true that a bank earns an economic profit when it ultimately collects $1,001 on a 10-year $1000 loan; yet, that's the way that bankers appear to think, largely because accounting rules permit them to act like it's okay to think in such naïve terms. And, just like Floyd Norris points out, we don't need about a dozen different free choices and all the subjectivity involved in accounting for stocks, bonds and loans.
* * * * *
My reading of history is more critical than Lawrence Summers'. It tells me that tight regulation of financial markets is necessary, because bad things happen when managers could end up being rewarded for decisions that destroy shareholder value. But, focusing on stewardship and external control does not mean that informativeness gets thrown out the window. In fact, I think the resulting financial statements would be more informative than those prepared in compliance with today's U.S. GAAP or IFRS. If done right, they should also be more auditable, but that's a topic for another post.
If investor protection were a horse, then when it comes to accounting standards the SEC and FASB have spent far too much time looking at the wrong end. (Don't ask me where I think the IASB has been looking!)
*And also to prevent misleading disclosures, but that's not central to what I am thinking about here.