Click here for Part One of this Three-Part Series.
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False Claim # 6: Costs of conversion to IFRS can be spread out over a long transition period.
All I can do here is to point out the obvious: merely spreading out the costs doesn't lessen them, nor lessen opportunity costs. What cost spreading does, however, is unduly prolong the time until financial reporting will reach a stable environment. If proponents of IFRS adoption are still playing that misleading comparability card as a primary benefit of IFRS adoption, then they should also explain why prolonging the transition, and the resulting lack of comparability, benefits investors.
Especially in light of the feedback the SEC has already received and the current economic climate, what is the benefit for a small public company of incurring the transition costs to IFRS? These companies could care less about how they stack up against the financial statements of a foreign company, and neither could their banker or venture capitalist.
We know from the European and Canadian experiences that transition costs were not trivial – to say the least – and it put a lot of shareholders' money into the pockets of auditors. If any member of Congress that voted for the Jumpstart our Business Startups (JOBS) Act believes that companies with $1 billion in sales or less have been unduly burdened in their capital raising by SEC rules, then they should act now to prohibit the SEC and FASB from changing accounting standards primarily for the sake of convergence with IFRS.
False Claim #7: The U.S. will not experience any loss of sovereignty over its ability to set accounting standards.
There could be mechanisms to assure that the U.S. will always be heard, but the absolute very best the U.S. can expect is to have a significant influence over IASB decision making. That's a far cry from sovereignty; and frankly, any efforts to minimize this issue are disingenuous.
Added to the fact that the EU will continue to do its level best to control all aspects of the IASB, there are other formidable forces that may be working to mitigate the U.S. voice in IFRS. Let's take one case that has recently been in the news – India. From reading an interview with India's Chairman of its National Advisory Committee on Accounting Standards, the mindset of India's accounting establishment reminds me more of the reserve-oriented income statement smoothing approach developed by the Germans. The interview mentions four (of a total of 65) major carve-outs from IFRS; but one in particular, on deferral of gains and losses on foreign currency-denominated debt, best reflects the great divide that still exists after years of negotiations with the IASB. Indian issuers, who rely on foreign debt more heavily than their U.S. or European counterparts, are unwilling to tolerate the income statement volatility of FX gains and losses on that debt. Hence, an exception to IFRS in India permits an issuer to spread any foreign exchange gain or loss over the life of the loan.
This is just one of many examples of an irreconcilable difference in financial reporting mindsets. It is inconceivable that such differences can be bridged by a single set of global accounting standards. It's just not realistic to expect that the U.S. will be the winner in every case when there is a difference in mindset, regulatory, political or legal circumstance; or not even in the majority of cases.
Indeed, history suggests that the U.S. will lose most of these battles. The numerous failed convergence projects alone attest to how many battles the U.S. stands to lose if it incorporates IFRS into U.S. GAAP. None of these issues – R&D, inventories, pensions, borrowing costs, business combinations, impairment of long-lived assets, financial instruments, hedge accounting, to name the ones that quickly come to mind – are trivial. For, if any of these, or any of the other differences between U.S. GAAP and IFRS were small differences, surely they would have been converged by now.
It is not unreasonable to expect, even, that a country like India might form a coalition with other countries against the U.S. Here's just one scenario: India makes a deal with the EU, and together they push a new standard that permits the deferral of unhedged foreign exchange gains and losses on foreign currency denominated debt. How will condorsement work? Will we carve out that particular deferral option? If so, the goal of comparability would be irretrievably lost.
I should add that what we are seeing now in the United Nations is not all that different from my hypothetical. It seems that numerous smaller nations have learned to use the United Nations to advance agendas that are making citizens of wealthier nations question their own willingness to continue belonging to and funding these efforts. Thus far we do not have a similar problem arising with the uniting of smaller nations to dominate standard setting in the IASB. However, once the U.S., Japan, India, and China become committed to IFRS, smaller nations could begin to rise up in the IASB. Their incentives would come from the fact that international accounting standards are not necessarily neutral when it comes to global capital flows and economic development.
False Claim #8: Bad things will happen to the rest of the world if the U.S. does not adopt IFRS
Harvey Goldschmid speculates that, without IFRS adoption, the so-called coalition of IFRS members would break apart. However, history strongly suggests otherwise. As I have already mentioned, much of IASB's growth was driven by the desire to insulate Europe and other jurisdictions with less developed standards, like China, from the influence of U.S. GAAP. So, maybe the only thing that could possibly break up the IASB would be for the U.S. to join it.
The IASB was created in 1973. It was reconstituted in 2001. In all those years, it has not been the sole creator of accounting standards. Yet it has grown and done well. Without the U.S. in the coalition, the IASB will continue to have the degrees of freedom events have shown that it needs to do what it takes to bring everyone currently in the coalition even closer together. That will mean giving the EU the financial instruments and hedge accounting standards it wants, giving India the foreign exchange standards it wants, and giving China the watered down related party disclosure standards that it wants – and so on and so forth, and all in the form of free choices that are in opposition to the goal of comparability and the mindset of U.S. GAAP. None of that would be possible if the U.S were to adopt IFRS.
I find it difficult to imagine that the U.S. could ultimately justify subsequent endorsement of the IASB's standards from the numerous failed convergence projects without significant modification – and what if the EU likes those standards just the way they are now? Just recently, for example, the Financial Times reported that there was a "real risk" that the European Commission would reject the IASB's new consolidation and joint venture accounting rules, developed jointly with the FASB, and which were due to become effective for 2013. Indeed, it is entirely possible that, as the EU has threatened before, they could cut their support for the IASB, establish aggressive new carve-outs, or even promulgate its own standards.
False Claim # 9: Bad things will happen in the U.S. if the U.S. does not adopt IFRS
Mr. Goldschmid also predicts that if the coalition does not break apart, it will leave the U.S. to fend for itself when it comes to accounting standards. According to Mr. Goldschmid, this is would be the worst of all possible worlds.
Again, history would suggest otherwise; and moreover, if it did occur, many believe that it would be a good thing, not a bad thing. As the AAA's Financial Accounting Standards Committee concluded, standards competition is desirable, and monopolies can have dire consequences. I find it extremely ironic that individuals and organizations such as the AICPA that normally speak out for free markets for goods and services somehow think that granting a monopoly on accounting standards is preferable to accounting standards produced in a competitive environment. Even if, and this is certainly not true at present, IFRS could be regarded as higher quality at some point, granting IFRS a monopoly would risk stagnancy – and in place of innovation toward higher quality accounting standards, we could be racing to the bottom. It is a great understatement to say that there is still plenty of room for improvement in both IFRS and U.S. GAAP, and a monopoly would virtually assure that not enough of that improvement would happen.
And, perhaps the monopoly effect explains the many failures to progress on convergence in the past ten years. If one were to accept that execution of the convergence projects and the results of that work to-date are the most important factors for the SEC to consider when deciding the future status of IFRS in the U.S., one would have no choice but to conclude that continuation by whatever means – condorsement or anything else – will be a monumental waste of time. That should also make it apparent that the FASB's time would have been much better spent on efforts to improve the quality of U.S. GAAP, instead of on convergence with IFRS.
It's hard not to be amazed at how much time has been devoted since 2002 to debating accounting issues and to see how so little of the convergence objectives have actually been accomplished.
Going back just two years to the time of the SEC's February 24, 2010 Statement on IFRS, the FASB and IASB had nearly a dozen joint projects planned for completion by both boards by mid-2011. The Commission was hopeful that at least some of those projects would be completed by now; but even IFRS adoption skeptics (like me!) could not have imagined that we would actually be further from convergence today than we were back in February 2010. Progress has been made toward partial convergence of some trivial matters – like the way that the components of dirty surplus (so-called "other comprehensive income") are presented, and the IASB has finally agreed to adopt the FASB's fair value measurement standards for the few items that are measured at fair value. But, almost everything else seems to be heading in reverse.
The US could lose its seat at the IFRS table, as Harvey Goldschmid warns, but this doesn't mean it will lose its voice. Even before convergence projects began, it was obvious that IFRS owed its form, and a great deal of its substance, to U.S. GAAP. It is very clear that IFRS wouldn't be what it is today without U.S. GAAP to serve at least as a point of reference, and whatever U.S. accounting standards will become in the future, they will always make the rest of the world at least stop and think – if not do.
False Claim #10: All nations have the same goals for financial statements.
I suppose that one could take the position that although there may be differences in objectives for financial statements, they are not enough to abandon efforts to establish a single set of accounting standards suitable for use by companies worldwide. Yet, who could in all seriousness state that the financial reporting objectives of the SEC and Chinese regulators are anywhere near the same?
Even more significant at the present time, the history of the EU's efforts to monitor and steer the IASB clearly indicate its regulators believe that a legitimate role for accounting standards is to support the agendas of politicians and key industrial powers. It is undeniable that when it comes to bank accounting, EU regulators clearly see nothing wrong with investor protection taking a back seat. I know the Greek bond problem remains extremely serious, but I have to admit that it amused me last fall to see heads of state Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy arguing on television, for all to see, over an accounting issue: the size of the balance sheet haircut that banks should take on their Greek bonds. Surely, their constituencies must have been asking themselves, 'what are they talking about'?
If IFRS were high quality, as Messrs. Hoogervorst and Goldschmid claim, then politicians wouldn't have to get involved in accounting debates, and could instead turn their attention to the real problems. The EU could continue to muddle along using the same approach to financial problem solving long after the Greek bond crisis is behind it. But, that doesn't mean the SEC has to muddle along with them. By adopting IFRS, the SEC will essentially be telling U.S. investors that it is willing to tolerate insurmountable barriers – such as the EU's obdurateness – to high-quality, investor-purposed accounting standards.
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So, here today we sit with the awareness that IFRS adoption is still laden with many problems and issues. There is seemingly overwhelming opposition to IFRS adoption, but many fear that the decision to proceed with some form of condorsement is soon at hand.
I would like to thank the following people who have provided comments on drafts of my speeches, and on which this series of posts is based: former SEC Chief Accountants Walter Schuetze and Lynn Turner; Gaylen Hansen; my colleagues, Jim Noel and Ray Stephens; and Bob Jensen, retired professor and current lifeblood of the AECM listserv.
I can only speak for myself, but I am confident that everyone whom I have just named all agree with me on this: for the sake of investor protection and the public interest, the SEC should have long ago made a U-turn on its Roadmap to IFRS adoption.