Here’s one thing that leaders of the Group of 20 (G-20) nations don’t need to work on at their Pittsburgh meeting—accounting rules. There is no surer way to give investors short shrift, or lay the groundwork for future financial crises, than to politicise accounting. Nor do investors need bank regulators sticking their noses into this area. If regulators want to ensure that banks are better able to withstand losses, they have the power to do so on their own.
Unfortunately, politicians and regulators from a number of countries are using the G-20 meeting and other discussions about how to overhaul financial regulation as chances to twist accounting to suit their own needs, not those of investors. The mistaken idea is to have accounting serve regulators and bank executives, as well as investors.
This is a continuation of the political pressure that has been brought to bear over the past year on the two main bodies that set accounting rules, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) in the US and the London-based International Accounting Standards Board (IASB). Both the boards, by the way, are supposed to be independent organisations and were set up to be insulated from political meddling. Last fall, the European Union (EU) arm-twisted the IASB into rule changes at the behest of banks. This spring, the US Congress browbeat the FASB into changes that watered down the impact of using market prices to value hard-hit securities.
TURN THE SCREW
Since then, politicians, banks and bank regulators have kept turning the screws. Countries within the EU have seen the G-20 summit as a way to put the IASB on a short leash. Banks in the US are hoping that the government will do the same.
The IASC Foundation, an independent, non-profit organisation that oversees the standard setter, wrote a letter on September 15 to President Barack Obama, who was to chair the Pittsburgh G-20 meeting. The missive attempted to appease banks and regulators, saying the board was working on rule changes that reflected suggestions from the G-20 earlier this year. It also said that the IASB would take more note of the considerations of regulators and other “stakeholders”.
This was followed by a statement from a group of securities regulators, including the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), that work with the IASB. The statement took a starkly different view, reiterating that the primary objective of financial reporting was to provide information “for present and potential investors”, with no mention of “stakeholders”. It added that “accounting standards should not be allowed to become a surrogate for robust bank risk management or effective bank supervision”.
That constitutes a sharp rebuke to bank regulators who have argued that the basis for accounting should be changed to reflect wider societal and banking goals. Over the past two weeks, both Sheila Bair, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and Federal Reserve Governor Elizabeth Duke have echoed that view.
Bair issued a veiled warning when she said “I strongly caution” the FASB to carefully consider possible changes to accounting rules that would require banks to use market prices when valuing loans that they hold.
Duke, meanwhile, pushed the notion that accounting should “directly link reported financial condition and performance with the business model and economic purpose of the firm.”
Duke confuses the goals of capital and accounting. In her view, the information investors receive should reflect the management’s goals and the wider role a business plays in the market. That approach would stand the centuries-old purpose of accounting on its head. As Jack Ciesielski, editor of the Analyst’s Accounting Observer, said: “Accounting is supposed to present economic information in a neutral, objective fashion so that investors can make informed decisions about where to place capital.”
Duke’s statements also ignore that accounting rule-makers and bank regulators have different public policy missions. FASB Chairman Robert Herz outlined these in a June speech: accounting rule-makers are concerned with providing “relevant, transparent and unbiased financial information”, while bank regulators focus on “the safety and soundness of individual financial institutions, protection of customer deposits, and on the overall stability of the financial system”.
Sometimes those goals conflict. That is the case today, especially when it comes to questions of how banks should value things like loans and debt securities.
When that happens, “It is not appropriate to subordinate or subvert external reporting to investors to the needs of the regulators or vice versa,” as Herz said.
This is just what some politicians and bank regulators are now trying to do. Better to make a clear distinction between the numbers provided to investors and the figures regulators use to gauge the soundness of banks and the wider financial system.
Mixing them up will do more harm than good.
(David Reilly is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)